California has a glut of renewable energy
Oil and gas executives, journalists and environmentalists were stunned when Patrick Lee, a Vice President at one of the country’s largest utilities, admitted to a room full of industry leaders recently that the electrical grid can be powered completely by solar, wind and hydropower.
“I am speaking with confidence now. We have a solution now to adjust the intermittency of solar and wind energy that is no longer a technology challenge,” Lee, a VP at Sempra Energy, told a UC San Diego Institute of the Americas-sponsored energy conference. “So, installing a base load power plant is no longer your only option. You can now look at solar, wind and storage as alternatives, and still be able to manage the reliability of the grid.”
Lee plugged a subsidiary of Sempra, PXiSe Energy Solutions, that is developing software to manage the electric grid from multiple sources, and cash in on falling prices of solar, wind and battery storage.
“How fast do you want to get to 100 percent? That can be done today,” he told the audience.
It was a revealing admission—and one based on reality, at least in California. The state has a glut of solar and wind power that it sells on the cheap, or even gives away to neighboring states. But the oil and gas industry is waging a relentless battle to protect its near monopoly on electric generation, which is what made Lee’s comments so shocking.
Less surprising was the fact that his comments were walked back just days after they caused a stir on social media. “My conference comments were incomplete and don’t mean 100% renewable now,” Lee tweeted from an account under his name, with no picture or bio, that was opened after the conference. “Today a reliable grid in CA requires natural gas-fired generation!” That tweet remains the only one published by that account.
Sempra also issued a statement in its own name disavowing Lee’s remarks: “Lee’s comments were aspirational in nature and not reflective of Sempra Energy’s position on the issue.”
Sempra and SoCalGas fighting to keep obsolete, dangerous gas storage facility open
Sempra, the San Diego-based utility, is also the parent company of SoCalGas, the owner of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility near Porter Ranch that was the site of the worst gas blow out in U.S. history in October 2015. That disaster took four months to fix and released 100,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere.
Despite the fact that families in Porter Ranch and the surrounding communities are still experienced health impacts they attribute to ongoing leaks, SoCalGas is pressuring regulators to renew gas shipments to the facility. The utility warns that there will be blackouts in Los Angeles during peak use if it is not allowed to resume operation, despite the fact that conservation measures put in place after the blowout have made the Aliso Canyon facility obsolete.
Time for a clean energy revolution
Food & Water Watch, along with environmental and grassroots groups, is fighting to get California and other states to transition to a 100% renewable electric grid by 2035 A bill currently in the California Legislature sets a policy goals of 100% renewable electric power by 2045, although it classifies some dirty energy sources, like “biomethane” from poultry and dairy waste, as renewable.
Lee characterized the decision to get off fossil fuels as “economic,” in what was perhaps a nod to the audience he was addressing. Oil and gas executives have an obvious interest in keeping the state dependent on gas-fired power plants. But it is also a political decision. The Western States Petroleum Association is the top lobbyist in Sacramento, spending almost $1.4 million in the first quarter of this year. Environmental groups complain that their bills get watered down or die in the statehouse because of the power of the fossil fuel lobby.
But with the right policies and technology available, the cost of clean energy falling fast, and grassroots groups pressuring lawmakers for action on climate change, it remains to be seen how long the powerful oil and gas industry can hold out. For now, it might get away with walking back its own admissions, but it can’t hold back the increasing demand for 100% renewables that is resounding in communities across the country.