California scorns fossil fuel but can’t keep the lights on without it

SACRAMENTO — California wants to quit fossil fuels. Just not yet.

Faced with a fragile electrical grid and the prospect of summertime blackouts, the state agreed to put aside hundreds of millions of dollars to buy power from fossil fuel plants that are scheduled to shut down as soon as next year.

That has prompted a backlash from environmental groups and lawmakers who say Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s approach could end up extending the life of gas plants that have been on-track to close for more than a decade and could threaten the state’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2045.

“The emphasis that the governor has been making is ‘We’re going to be Climate Leaders; we’re going to do 100 percent clean energy; we’re going to lead the nation and the world,’” said V. John White, executive director of the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a non-profit group of environmental advocates and clean energy companies. “Yet, at least a part of this plan means going the opposite direction.”

That plan was a last-minute addition to the state’s energy budget, which lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature reluctantly passed. Backers say it’s necessary to avoid the rolling blackouts like the state experienced during a heat wave in 2020. Critics see a muddled strategy on energy, and not what they expected from a nationally ambitious governor who has made climate action a centerpiece of his agenda.

The legislation, which some Democrats labeled as “lousy” and “crappy,” reflects the reality of climate change. Heat waves are already straining power capacity, and the transition to cleaner energy isn’t coming fast enough to meet immediate needs in the nation’s most populous state.

Officials have warned that outages would be possible this summer, with as many as 3.75 million California homes losing power in a worst-case scenario of a West-wide heat wave and insufficient electrical supplies, particularly in the evenings.

It’s also an acknowledgment of the political reality that blackouts are hazardous to elected officials, even in a state dominated by one party.

Newsom emphasized that the money to prop up the power grid, part of a larger $4.3 billion energy spending package, is meant as a stop-gap measure. The bill allows the Department of Water Resources to spend $2.2 billion on “new emergency and temporary generators, new storage systems, clean generation projects, and funding on extension of existing generation operations, if any occur,” the governor said in a statement after signing the bill.

“Action is needed now to maintain reliable energy service as the State accelerates the transition to clean energy,” Newsom said.

Following the signing, the governor called for the state California Air Resources Board to add a set of ambitious goals to its 2022 Scoping Plan, which lays out California’s path for reducing carbon emissions.

Among Newsom’s requested changes is a move away from fossil fuel, asking state agencies to prepare for an energy transition that avoids the need for new natural gas plants.

Alex Stack, a spokesman …read more