For Clients & Friends of The Gualco Group, Inc.
IN THIS ISSUE – “Our Clock is Running Out”
- COVID Challenge Complicates Final Days of the Legislative Session
- Legislature Must Deal with Multiple Crises by Monday
- Legislators Roll Out Last-Minute “Trailer Bills”
- Governor Endorses 3 Ballot Initiatives, Silent on 2
FIRE, ENERGY & AIR
- $2.5-Billion Wildfire Measure Moves Ahead
- Wildfire Prevention on 48 Million Acres: “Digging Out of a Very, Very Deep Hole”
- As Lights Go Out, State Water Board May Unplug Oceanfront Power Plants
- Air Board OKs New Truck & Port Emissions Rules; Costs Estimated at $7.5 Billion
FOR THE WEEK ENDING AUG. 28, 2020
Capital News & Notes (CN&N) harvests California legislative and regulatory insights from dozens of media and official sources for the past week, tailored to your business and advocacy interests. Please feel free to forward.
READ ALL ABOUT IT!!
All but one of the Republicans in the California Senate were barred from the state Capitol on Thursday after they were exposed to the coronavirus, prompting unprecedented changes that will allow them to vote via video conference from their homes as the Legislature rushes to complete its work by Monday’s deadline.
Republican Sen. Brian Jones confirmed he had tested positive for the virus. On Tuesday, he attended a Republican caucus lunch where 10 of the 11 members sat around a large conference table and removed their masks to eat, according to Republican state Sen. John Moorlach.
Those senators were scheduled to be tested for the virus on Thursday. Meanwhile, the state Senate met and passed 30 bills and confirmed six of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointments — all while most Republican members were unable to vote.
Some Republicans were furious. They noted leaders shut the Legislature down for a few weeks last month when a Democratic Assemblywoman and a Republican assemblyman tested positive for the virus. And they said they were singled out for quarantine this time even though Jones was on the Senate floor Monday, putting senators from both parties at risk.
“To forbid an entire caucus from voting when all members were exposed defies logic and robs my constituents of their voice,” said Sen. Ling Ling Chang, a Republican from Diamond Bar.
Jones wore a mask while on the Senate floor on Monday and physically distanced from his colleagues. Secretary of the Senate Erika Contreras said Senate officials consulted public health experts and decided Jones did not expose others on Monday.
Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a Democrat, said the Senate worked without the Republicans on Thursday because “we need to get work done.”
She said lawmakers cannot pass bills after midnight Monday unless the governor calls them into a special session. Hundreds of bills are pending, including high-profile police reform proposals filed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May and a proposal to extend eviction protections to people who cannot pay their rent because of the pandemic.
“Our clock is running out,” Atkins said.
Atkins said the Republican lawmakers would participate remotely on Friday, debating bills and casting votes via videoconference from their Sacramento residences. It will be the first time in the Legislature’s 158-year history state Senators will vote without being present in the chamber — something the Office of Legislative Counsel has said is likely illegal.
But legislative leaders have rejected that advice, saying they are confident they would prevail in any lawsuit.
People should be tested for the coronavirus if they are within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of someone without wearing a mask for at least 15 minutes, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But he said the Republican lawmakers might be getting tested too soon. He said it takes three to five days after exposure for enough of the virus to be present in a person to be detected.
And even if people test negative, Rutherford said, the fact that they have been exposed means they should still isolate for 15 days because they could be incubating the virus.
Sidelined Republican senators were frustrated on Thursday, including Sen. Brian Dahle. He said he’s worried that remote voting will make any laws the Legislature pass vulnerable to a legal challenge.
“Look, I don’t want to get anybody sick. But I also want to serve my people,” he said.
Complicating matters is the fact that Dahle is not the only state lawmaker in his household. His wife Megan Dahle is a Republican in the state Assembly. Megan Dahle said she has been watching Assembly floor sessions from her office and recording her votes later. She plans to return to the Assembly floor on Sunday.
“I was not mandated to do it or anything like that, but I want to be respectful to my colleagues,” she said.
In addition to Jones, a California Highway Patrol officer who works in the Capitol has also tested positive for the disease. The officer was last in the building on Tuesday but had no contact with senators or their staff members, according to Contreras.
Anyone entering the Capitol from the public entrances must be screened for symptoms, including temperature checks. But those screenings have not applied to lawmakers and staff.
Legislative leaders had asked lawmakers and staff to “self screen” at home, even providing them with thermometers. That changed Thursday, with everyone entering the building now required to go through the screening process.
Tick-Tock: Legislature Must Deal With Multiple Crises by Monday
They have until today to introduce new bills. The legislative session ends Monday, and lawmakers will likely cast votes late into the night.
Further reducing the limited time left, the Senate cancelled its Wednesday floor session after learning state Sen. Brian Jones, a San Diego Republican, and a California Highway Patrol officer in the Capitol this week had tested positive for COVID-19.
- Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat:“The Senate will be prepared to continue our work when we have completed public health protocols to ensure that the risk of exposure has been eliminated.”
Details of how lawmakers hope to revitalize the economy are slowly emerging, with at least two pieces culled from an ambitious $100 billion stimulus plantop Democrats unveiled in July: a bill that would free up $500 million to train new firefighters and set aside $2.5 billion to handle wildfires and climate change; and a bill to improve highways and roads. We’re keeping an eye on whether other parts of the proposal make it through, including expanding broadband services.
- Gavin Newsom on Aug. 12:“One of the most important things we could do … is accelerating state-funded infrastructure investment. … We have a lot of work we want to do on wildfires and green infrastructure investment, hardening our energy grid … Workforce training is foundational.”
But the wildfire bill involves extending existing taxes — a tough call for lawmakers facing reelection — and requires a two-thirds vote to pass.
So would an eviction deal, which is tentatively taking shape. Under a recent iteration of the plan, renters would be obligated to pay 25% of their rent between Sept. 1, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2021. Landlords wouldn’t be compensated for missed rent, but could pursue the remaining 75% in small claims court. They would be able to evict renters for missed payments starting Feb. 1, 2021.
Conceptually, writing legislation to implement the annual state budget makes perfect sense.
In practice, so-called “trailer bills” have become vehicles to semi-secretly do things that might otherwise be difficult to do, often with little or no relationship to the budget. They are drafted behind closed doors and quickly enacted with minimal exposure to the public, the press and those affected by their provisions.
With the Legislature due to adjourn for the year Monday, an array of 11th-hour trailer bills has popped up with major policy decrees buried in hundreds of pages of dense legalese. They include two major criminal justice changes, benefits for powerful public employee unions, punishment for cities that shun legal marijuana, and a new state agency with vast new powers to crack down on banks and other financial institutions.
The latter is contained in Senate Bill 819, which not only folds existing financial regulatory agencies into a new Department of Financial Protection and Innovation but would enact a California Consumer Financial Protection Law to “protect Californians from financial abuses in the marketplace for financial products and services.”
The newly empowered agency would, it’s said, fill the vacuum left by President Donald Trump’s pullback on federal financial regulation.
The most sweeping of the criminal justice changes, embodied in Senate Bill 823, would repeal a new law that shifts handling of juvenile offenders from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to a new department under the Health and Human Services Agency. Instead, under SB 823 the state would rid itself of all juvenile offenders and shift their care and confinement to counties.
The proposal originated with Gov. Gavin Newsom on the theory that keeping juvenile offenders close to their families would result in better rehabilitation outcomes, but counties have not yet agreed to accept the responsibility, even though they would receive state funds.
Another measure, Senate Bill 824, would eliminate 23 fees now imposed on those convicted of crimes on the rationale that forcing them to pay fees while facing fines and possible imprisonment amounts to taxes on the poor.
Provisions found in other late-blooming trailer bills:
—Senate Bill 820, a very long and detailed “omnibus education bill,” furthers the union-led drive to hamstring charter schools by putting a lid on payments to charters that offer remote learning, rather than through classrooms, even though most public schools are teaching remotely these days.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who is the Capitol’s leading education reform advocate, is sharply critical of the limit, saying “It’s not a good idea not to fund the students.”
Also buried in SB 820 is language that would indirectly prohibit the University of California from contracting-out building maintenance work, a boost to the unions that represent many UC workers. It would prohibit UC from tapping state construction funds if they didn’t use staff workers for all maintenance.
—Senate Bill 815 would order the creation of a “tax voucher” program aimed at enticing personal and corporate taxpayers to pre-pay future taxes, thus providing the state with more money to deal with projections of multi-year deficits. In effect, the state would be borrowing money from taxpayers.
—Senate Bill 827 would deny cities that prohibit commercial marijuana cultivation and sales from receiving law enforcement grants from state taxes on legal pot.
All of these trailer bill provisions may have merit. But they should not be jammed into law in the final days of the session, bypassing the normal legislative processes. It’s bad governance.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on officially endorsed several ballot measures related to race and criminal justice, but did not weigh in on other high-profile measures to increase business property taxes and allow gig-economy companies to treat drivers as independent contractors.
Newsom endorsed the following:
- Proposition 16, which wouldoverturn a ban on “affirmative action” by allowing the consideration of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in university admissions, public employment and contracting
- Proposition 17 toallow Californians on parole to vote
- Proposition 25 toend bail in California
Newsom had already publicly expressed support for the affirmative action measure. He also publicly supported ending bail when the proposal passed the Legislature in 2018.
He also announced his opposition to Proposition 20, which would roll back some criminal justice changes he had supported in past ballot measure campaigns. The measure would expand the list of crimes that make someone ineligible for parole and would make some misdemeanor offenses eligible for felony sentencing, including some theft crimes.
A group of legislators is pushing a bill to spend $2.5 billion on wildfire prevention in California, with the costs borne by ratepayers of PG&E Corp. and other major utilities.
With the legislative session winding down and wildfires burning more than 1.3 million acres in California in the past week, AB 1659 would dedicate funding for battling climate change and accelerating the thinning of forests and other heavily-vegetated areas. Money would also be spent on “home hardening” and the creation of “defensible space” around communities and homes.
The latest round of wildfires, triggered by lightning strikes, have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and other buildings, mainly in Northern California. Home hardening — the installation of fire-resilient roofing and other measures — could have reduced the damage, said bill co-author Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica.
“These are homes that appear to not have had the benefit of current technology of how to protect a home from fire,” Bloom said in an interview Wednesday.
The bill would take an unusual approach toward funding.
As it is, ratepayers and shareholders of the major utilities are paying for a $21 billion insurance pool created by the Legislature last year to shield the companies from liabilities caused by new fires. The ratepayers’ share comes from extending, for another 15 years, a 96 cents-a-month surcharge that’s been on customer bills since the energy crisis nearly 20 years ago, when the state had to step in and buy power for the three big utilities.
To pay for the wildfire-prevention programs, Bloom’s legislation would extend the ratepayer surcharge for another decade, to 2045. However, that extension wouldn’t apply to the shareholders, Bloom said.
The bill is designed to address some of the most sorely-needed prevention programs.
For instance, a McClatchy investigation showed that homes built to strict, modern building codes were more likely to survive the Camp Fire, which destroyed more than 12,000 buildings in Paradise in November 2018. With much of California’s housing stock built well before these codes took effect, experts say home-hardening retrofits could be one of the most effective forms of fire prevention available.
Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year proposed spending $100 million on home hardening, but removed the money from the budget after the economy tanked in March and the surplus disappeared.
Much of the money would be allocated through grants to Cal Fire and the Natural Resources Agency, as well as county fire-safe councils and other organizations. Among other things, the bill would dedicate $100 million to repair damage done to state parks. Fire ripped through the state’s oldest park, Big Basin Redwoods in Santa Cruz County, raising fears of massive devastation, but the Associated Press reported that that giant redwoods were largely intact.
In addition, $300 million would go toward water projects “to improve water supply reliability for fire fighting in areas at high risk,” the bill says. That would include $50 million to help repair the Friant-Kern Canal, a major irrigation channel on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.
The concrete canal has sagged badly because of widespread groundwater pumping by farmers, particularly during the drought, causing the ground to sink — and taking a segment of the canal down with it, dramatically reducing its ability to deliver water to downstream farmers.
Gavin Newsom had been governor for just one day when he appeared at a Cal Fire station in the Sierra foothills and outlined his plan for protecting California from major wildfires.
More advanced helicopters. Better alert systems. Additional firefighters. Infrared cameras for early detection. In the months that followed, the administration sent out crews with chainsaws and wood chippers to cut brush and trees at dozens of projects near fire-prone communities.
Nineteen months later, wildfire risks seem as bad as ever in California. A series of lightning strikes touched off hundreds of fires that devoured more than 1.3 million acres in barely a week, killing seven people and destroying more than 1,000 homes and other buildings. Despite beefed-up staffing, Cal Fire has been strained to the breaking point.
Since Newsom took office in January 2019, the state has spent nearly $500 million expanding Cal Fire’s personnel and equipment. He signed a bill requiring PG&E Corp. and the other major utilities to spend a combined $5 billion on wildfire safety.
The state has 6,900 firefighters at Cal Fire, which has an annual budget of more than $2 billion. Last summer, Cal Fire had 343 fire engines, operating out of 234 fire stations. The agency also operated 12 air attack bases, and 10 helitack bases.
Yet the fires seem to keep getting out of control, and experts say they’ll continue to roar in the months and years ahead, unless the state and federal governments continue to spend billions of dollars more on making California communities more resilient to fire.
“I don’t think at this point we’ve gotten much traction with the problem,” said Malcolm North, a fire ecologist at UC Davis and the U.S. Forest Service. “The enormity of it … it would probably take years. There’s no simple or cheap solution to this problem.”
Michael Wara, a climate and energy expert at Stanford University who’s advised the state Legislature on wildfire issues, said the state is still grappling with a legacy of spending money on fighting fires instead of on forest health, such as thinning overgrown brush and removing millions of drought-killed trees, building fire breaks around communities and intentionally setting fires when conditions safely allow it bring fire back into forests that evolved to burn every few years.
“We’ve made substantial investments and improvements in our suppression tactics the last five years, but we have not yet made the kind of investments to materially change the risks on the ground,” Wara said.
There’s a lot of ground to cover: California has 33 million acres of forests, plus another 15 million acres of grassland and scrubby terrain called chaparral, the dense brush that surrounds many foothill communities up and down the state.
That’s 48 million acres, nearly half the state’s total landmass, at considerable risk of burning. Approximately 3 million California homes, about a quarter of the total, lie within risky “fire hazard severity zones” mapped out by Cal Fire.
These were places that burned regularly before homes were built, and before the state and federal governments spent decades racing to put out every fire that ignited to protect communities and lucrative timber stocks.
UC Berkeley researchers estimate that prior to 1800, about 4.5 million acres of California burned in a typical year. Around half of those acres burned because Native Americans intentionally ignited them as part of their traditional land-management practices.
Earlier this month the state signed a memorandum of understanding with the Trump administration that aims to reduce fire conditions on 1 million acres of forest and rangeland each year by 2025 — roughly doubling the current amount of treatments. But even achieving that ambitious goal would still leave millions of acres vulnerable.
The latest rash of fires illustrates what’s at stake in much of California’s landscape.
“Every part of California is receptive to wildfire,” said Yana Valachovic, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor on the North Coast. “Especially in a year like this, when we had a pretty dry winter and spring, so a lot of the state is in drought conditions.”
President Donald Trump lashed out against California’s forest management, a favorite target of his. “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” he said at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.
But the truth is a good deal more complicated.
In August alone, California has seen fires burn in a wide array of habitats — evergreen timber and coastal redwood groves, oak woodlands, deserts, chaparral and grasslands — across a mosaic of public and private lands.
Each habitat type needs to be managed differently to reduce fire risks and each comes with its own funding challenges, making it difficult to reduce fire risks quickly, said Scott Stephens, a wildfire expert at UC Berkeley.
“It is a long haul. A long haul,” he said.
And sometimes there’s only so much that can be done. For instance, experts say reducing fire danger in chaparral is next to impossible.
“Fuels reduction doesn’t work very well,” North said. “It grows back so fast, it doesn’t do you any good.”
North and others say climate change makes the problem worse. It’s made for hotter, drier summers and extends the fire season deeper into the calendar.
Last fall, as state officials blasted PG&E after the Kincade Fire and a series of “public safety power shutoffs” that darkened hundreds of thousands of homes, the utility’s beleaguered chief executive said climate change had made fire safety a moving target. A decade ago about 10 percent of its territory was prone to wildfires, he said. Now, because of climate change, half of PG&E’s territory is at risk, he said.
The lightning strikes were caused by warm moist air heading south-to-north, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto in the Pacific, said Bay Area private meteorologist Jan Null. Adding to the risk were extremely dry conditions. “We had a dry winter, we had forests that were still struggling to recover from the drought,” he said. “With most disasters, you had a cascade of events.”
In addition, climate change also makes weather more volatile, experts say. The lightning strikes “certainly have fingerprints of climate change on them,” North said.
A hotter California makes it harder for those working on the ground to decrease the risk. That includes people like Steve Wilensky, the head of a nonprofit in Calaveras County that raises money to remove trees and create “fuel breaks” in the southern end of the Eldorado National Forest.
Wilensky began his work more than a decade ago, convening groups of loggers, environmentalists and others and gradually building a consensus that the forests needed more aggressive treatment. He remembers taking fire chiefs with him as he pleaded with residents to allow crews to remove brush and trees from their properties.
At first, “whole neighborhoods would run us off,” he said.
But over time, he was able to win hearts and minds. Armed with $15 million in state and federal grants, his organization is overseeing a three-year project to carve 200 miles worth of fuel breaks through the Eldorado.
But he worries that it’s not enough to keep pace as the woods stay drier for longer.
“For every year that we don’t address climate change, the goalposts move ahead of the activities we do,” Wilensky said.
After the devastating wine-country fires of 2017, California lawmakers and policymakers began tackling wildfire risks with renewed vigor. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation appropriating $1 billion over five years to thin California’s forests through tree removal and intentionally set fires called prescribed burns. Funding comes from the proceeds of the state’s cap-and-trade program, which charges polluters for greenhouse-gas emissions.
The day after Newsom was elected, the Camp Fire blew through the town of Paradise, destroying more than 12,000 buildings and killing 85 people — the deadliest wildfire in state history.
The fire plunged PG&E into bankruptcy and prompted Newsom to go further. The Legislature created a $21 billion insurance pool to shield the big investor-owned utilities from future wildfire liabilities, with funding coming from their ratepayers and shareholders. In order to participate, the major utilities — PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — have to spend a combined $5 billion on wildfire-risk measures.
The state threw some taxpayer money at the wildfire problem, too. The Legislature last year appropriated $315 million for new helicopters, $40 million for new fire engines and millions more for additional fire crews. This year the Legislature agreed to $158 million in new staffing for Cal Fire, including permanent and temporary crews.
Earlier this year Newsom proposed spending $100 million to help communities fire-prone areas retrofit their housing supply with fire-resilient roofs and other safety measures. The proposal followed a McClatchy investigation that found homes built after 2008 — when strict fire codes took effect in wildfire country — survived the Camp Fire in Paradise at a far greater rate than older properties.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic clobbered the economy and wiped out California’s budget surplus, the $100 million for home “hardening” disappeared from Newsom’s spending plan.
Some legislators began pushing, in the Legislature’s waning days, a proposal to resurrect funding for home hardening and other wildfire-risk programs. AB 1659 would raise allocate $3 billion for accelerated vegetation treatment, home retrofitting projects and more.
The fires burning this month showed just how important that work is to “improve the odds of homes surviving without firefighters,” said Valachovic, the UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor.
“We can’t get firefighters everywhere,” she said. “And this lightning series really showed us that things went too far too fast.”
When the Hog Fire ignited in mid-July west of Susanville, it didn’t get a lot of attention outside of the immediate area. It burned fewer than 10,000 acres and destroyed just two buildings.
Tom Esgate thinks he knows why — the fire burned in a wooded area of the Lassen National Forest that had recently undergone intensive thinning, courtesy of $3 million worth of state and federal grants. The project helped reduce the Hog Fire to “a low-intensity fire that was manageable,” said Esgate, who oversaw the project as leader of the Lassen County Fire Safe Council.
The Fire Safe Council then turned its attention to an area south of Susanville. In June it began a similar effort to selectively remove Ponderosa pines and other trees and brush. The hope was it would allow for the sorts of restorative fires that were the norm before white settlement: a fire creeping along the forest floor instead of a fast-moving inferno that turns whole stands of trees into torches.
But 2020 showed how quickly events can overtake noble intentions. In late August, long before the project was done, lightning struck the area and ignited what became known as the Sheep Fire. Within a few days, it burned 29,000 acres, prompted evacuations in the area around Susanville and destroyed a handful of buildings.
If the work had been completed, things might have been different.
“The fire wouldn’t just put itself out, but I don’t think it would have grown to this latitude,” said Doug Lindgren, owner of Tubit Enterprises Inc., the logging company hired to do the work.
Lindgren described patch of forest where he was working was “a wall” of brush, trees and downed limbs that was hard to even walk through. “Just stuff everywhere,” he said.
“We are doing some projects that probably should have been done 20 years ago.”
If the Lassen forest was a wall, the state and federal governments helped put it there.
Many of California’s woes originated in the state and federal government’s zealousness to put out all fires as soon as possible — a policy of “fire suppression” that dates back to the early 1900s to the era of Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service, and left forests overgrown with trees. Of the more than 30 million forested acres in California, about 57% is on federal land.
“A century of fire suppression remains firmly entrenched within federal and state firefighting agencies and has left forest floors deep in flammable groundcover,” the state’s Little Hoover Commission said in a 2018 report.
Only in recent years have policymakers begun embracing the idea of thinning forests for fire safety, either by removing trees, allowing remote fires to burn for a while, or starting “prescribed burns” to eliminate some of the fuel.
“We’re just trying to dig ourselves out of a very, very deep hole,” said Michael De Lasaux, a retired UC Cooperative Extension forestry expert who had to be evacuated from his home in Quincy recently. “We’re decades behind the curve.”
They sit on oceanfront property in Southern California, a fleet of aging gas-fired power plants that not only pollute the air but also kill sea lions and other marine life. They’re also capable of powering up to 2.8 million homes.
The State Water Resources Board will vote Sept. 1 on whether to add as many as three more years of life to the coastal plants. The postponement is “needed to ensure system-wide grid reliability,” the board’s staff wrote in a memo released last week.
The recent drama on California’s power grid is forcing the state to confront difficult questions about its commitment to an all-green electricity future.
For years the state has been in a sprint to remove carbon from its power supply. It already gets nearly one-third of its power from solar, wind and other renewable sources, and the Legislature is demanding more. State law requires that the grid must be 100% carbon-free by 2045. As more solar and farms spring up, traditional fossil-fuel plants get mothballed.
But now the blackouts have put Gov. Gavin Newsom and policymakers on the defensive about the state’s energy choices. Critics are chortling over the fact that wind power isn’t always reliable and solar naturally fades as evening arrives, leaving the state exposed to energy shortages during extraordinary heat waves.
“What we’ve seen over time is a starving away of the very electricity that keeps the lights on in California,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, vice chairman of the Assembly’s Utilities and Energy Committee. “When the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining, the people of California do not stop living their lives and cooking their food and washing their clothes.
Newsom insists the state won’t go back.
Drawing a line between the heat wave and the recent explosion of deadly wildfires, he told reporters at a Cal Fire press briefing Friday: “We are committed to a low carbon, green growth future. We are going to radically change the way we produce and consume energy for one reason. We believe in climate change. We believe in science. The last thing we need to do is double down on a future that actually created the conditions that we are trying to address here today.”
Yet Newsom said California can’t just fall victim to power shortages as it transforms the grid.
“We are in a transition and obviously reliability was stretched and strained … and continues to be strained,” he said earlier in the week. “We obviously cannot allow this to be a permanent state of anxiety.”
Ensuring reliability won’t be easy. While there are technologies available to store solar and wind power for a few hours, so they can be used in the evenings, these products aren’t widely available yet.
As a result, the grid could remain fragile for the foreseeable future. On hot summer days, when California relies on renewables for as much as half its power supply, the state will be left vulnerable when solar power fades in the evening and the winds turn fickle.
That’s what happened last Saturday evening. One night after encountering blackouts for the first time since the 2001 energy crisis, engineers at the Independent System Operator, the Folsom-based entity that manages the grid, were fairly certain they had lined up enough power. ISO officials even pushed back on a warning from PG&E Corp. that blackouts were coming.
Then a 400-megawatt fossil-fuel plant conked out and about 1,000 megawatts of wind energy suddenly disappeared. The state’s cushion vanished, and the ISO ordered a second night of blackouts.
“If the wind hadn’t run out, we would have been OK,” said Steve Berberich, the ISO’s chief executive. Yet Berberich has been adamant that “renewables haven’t caused this issue.”
So what is the problem? In a letter to Newsom, responding to the governor’s demand for explanations, Berberich and the leaders of the Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission pointed to a variety of causes, including California’s lack of adequate planning to replace the traditional generation that has been retired.
They also pledged to improve forecasting models that failed to anticipate mammoth, region-wide heat waves that can erode California’s reserve supplies of electricity.
“The forecasts and planning reserves need to better account for the fact that climate change will mean more heat storms and more volatile imports, and that our changing electricity system may need larger reserves,” the three wrote in a joint letter to the governor.
Fourteen years ago, the state suffered one of the worst heat waves ever recorded. When it was over, more than 650 Californians had died. And the state had set a dubious record: the most electricity ever consumed on the ISO’s grid, a peak demand of 50,270 megawatts on July 24, 2006.
Nonetheless, the state avoided blackouts that day. It also had enough power in the late summer of 2017, when another terrible heat wave rolled into the state and electricity consumption again topped 50,000 megawatts.
By contrast, the state ran short of electricity last Friday and Saturday even though demand was lower — several thousand megawatts lower — than it was in 2006 and 2017.
What’s different now?
Before, California was able to buy electricity fairly easily from neighboring states to avoid shortages. Now those states, with growing populations of their own, aren’t as willing to share.
The other day, Nevada made an urgent appeal for conservation, something it hadn’t done since 2001. California, accustomed to importing about 10,000 megawatts from its neighbors on a hot day, has been lucky to scrounge up 5,000 or 6,000 lately.
Another big difference: California’s greater dependence on renewables and its shelving of large quantities of gas-fired generation. In 2014 natural gas provided 45% of the state’s electricity needs. In 2018 it was down to 35%.
Other traditional sources are going by the wayside, too: In 2013 Southern California Edison pulled the plug on the San Onofre nuclear plant, and a few years later PG&E Corp. said it decommission its nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. Its two reactors will go dark in 2024 and 2025. That represents thousands of lost megawatts.
Some in the energy industry say California’s blackouts are a natural consequent of its steady abandonment of traditional power.
“if policymakers’ ambitions get in the way of … practical operational requirements of the grid, we run into these kinds of problems,” said Todd Snitchler, CEO of the Electric Power Supply Association, a national trade group that represents traditional generators as well as renewable companies.
“Is California certain that it has reliable electricity? That has to be the threshold question,” he said. “American consumers have come to expect nearly 100% reliability.”
President Donald Trump put it a lot more bluntly. In a pair of tweets, Trump first claimed — without evidence — that the Democrats had “intentionally” caused the blackouts. Then he tied California’s woes to green-energy policies championed by his November election opponent Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “The Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”
The timing couldn’t have been better: Just five days after the first blackout, a New York-based company called LS Power said it had finished installing a massive battery farm in East Otay Mesa, near San Diego. The facility, the largest in the world, is capable of storing 230 megawatts of electricity.
The problem with electricity, by and large, is that it has to be consumed when it’s generated. Storage, in the form of industrial-sized lithium-ion batteries, could provide a significant answer to California’s energy problems some day.
Developers are flooding the state with ideas and cash. The same day the San Diego project opened, an Omaha company called Tenaska said it was starting work on nine separate battery farms around the state.
Yet storage has its limitations. On most hot days, Berberich said all the renewable energy that’s being generated is fed directly into the grid and consumed immediately. There’s nothing left to be stored.
Ideally, Berberich said, California will build a lot more wind and solar power, so that some of the electricity can be put into storage. In addition, he said the state needs batteries that could soak up the sun during the spring and feed it back into the grid during the dog days of summer — what he calls “seasonal storage.”
But most batteries can hold their charge for four hours. The top of the line is eight hours. Breakthroughs are being made on batteries that can hold their charge for days or weeks, but that’s something for the future.
“A lot of these technologies are in pilot, demo,” said Julia Prochnik of Long Duration Energy Storage Association of California, a trade group.
Storage advocates say the limitations aren’t just technological. Brad Heavner, of the California Storage & Solar Association, said major utilities such as PG&E Corp. haven’t done nearly enough to tap into the batteries that are already in operation in the state.
“We have these batteries sitting there, waiting to discharge power,” Heavner said. “The utilities are very slow in building their half of the solution.”
Utilities say they are embracing storage, though. Working with Tesla, PG&E Corp. is building a 180-megawatt battery farm by its giant substation at Moss Landing in Monterey County. In May the utility announced it will be developing additional projects over the next three years, many of them located adjacent to existing solar farms.
“PG&E is well positioned with the energy storage projects under contract today to meet the state’s ambitious clean energy and storage goals while ensuring grid reliability,” said Fong Wan, a PG&E senior vice president, in a prepared statement.
A decade ago the State Water Resources Control Board decided something needed to be done about 19 natural gas power plants dotting the Southern California coastline.
Between them, they were drawing billions of gallons a day from the ocean to literally cool themselves down. In the process, they were killing “millions of fish, larvae, eggs, seals, sea lions, turtles, and other creatures” every year, according to the board.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, were complaining that the gas-fired plants, some of them a half-century old, were contributing heavily to climate change and other forms of air pollution.
The water board imposed a stiff rule: The plants would have to reduce their seawater consumption by 93% or close. So far 10 of the plants have closed rather than spend the money to overhaul their cooling mechanisms, and the other nine are facing a Dec. 31 deadline.
But starting last year, the state’s energy regulators, led by the ISO and the Public Utilities Commission, have been urging the water board to back off.
“We are now going into a period where capacity will be tight for several years,” Mark Rothleder, an ISO vice president, told the ISO board last September.
The water board has been mulling those warnings for months. On Tuesday, its staff acknowledged the fragility of the grid. While its formal proposal was written before the blackouts, it made clear that it acknowledged the troubles that can occur when solar and wind energy fade, and when imports are harder to find.
Its recommendation: Allow three of the units to keep operating as usual through the end of 2021. The remaining six would get until December 2023. Its rationale: The delays would give utilities and grid operators enough time to line up the additional supplies that are “likely needed for peak usage on hot days through 2023.”
AES, a power generator whose three units in Redondo Beach would close in 2021 under the proposed timetable, is appealing to the water board for two more years. In a letter to the water board, AES officials said their plants helped minimize the blackouts in Southern California “while the darkness rotated through the northern state.”
Meanwhile, environmentalists don’t want to see any delays at all, saying the climate can’t wait for more green energy to be put onto the grid.
“It’s not OK to have this knee-jerk reaction,” Larissa Koehler, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. “We don’t see any reason to delay implementation of cleaner, carbon-neutral resources.”
Ships and trucks will be required to cut thousands of tons of air pollution in communities near ports, freeways and warehouses under a pair of rules unanimously adopted by the Air Resources Board today.
The rules overhaul regulations for diesel truck exhaust and expand emission reductions from ships idling in California’s ports. The two rules, when fully implemented, are expected to eliminate some 10,000 tons of pollution per year, the state’s biggest strike against smog in twelve years.
Some of the nation’s most powerful businesses — oil companies, engine manufacturers and ports — opposed the new rules, saying the battered economy cannot weather changes that could reach nearly $7 billion. The air board’s hearings on the two rules lasted about more than eight hours, with dozens of people voicing support and opposition.
Moving goods from ship to truck to warehouse accounts for nearly a third of California’s economy, but about half of its air pollution. Much of the pollution affects disadvantaged communities and communities of color near ports, freeways and freight corridors.
Diesel trucks are California’s number one source of a key ingredient of smog called nitrogen oxides, and they produce about a quarter of cancer-causing soot emitted statewide. Although federal efforts to clean up trucks have stalled, California will nevertheless need to slash nitrogen oxides and soot in order to meet federal health standards.
In June, California adopted the world’s first regulation requiring manufacturers to ramp up sales of zero-emission trucks and buses over the next 15 years. But conventional heavy duty trucks will remain on California’s roads, spewing fumes in communities near railyards, ports and warehouses.
Traffic and slow speeds prime trucks to pump out nitrogen oxides — but right now, certification tests fail to capture those conditions. The new regulations require manufacturers of medium and heavy-duty engines to test them in ways that more closely mimic real traffic, and to extend the lifetime of emissions-control technologies.
Engines also must meet tighter standards that cut nitrogen oxides by 75 percent starting in 2024, and 90 percent starting in 2027. Particulate pollution standards will be cut in half starting with 2024 models.
The costs of these changes total about $4.5 billion between 2022 and 2050. A model year 2031 engine would cost roughly $6,000 more over its lifetime, about a 6 percent increase.
Manufacturers objected to the cost and the timeline.
“The rule is not technically sound or cost-effective, and…fails to provide the legally mandated minimum lead time,” said Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association. “If implemented the rule will not achieve its air quality goals, and will harm California’s economy.”
But air board officials said the health benefits are also significant — avoiding 3,900 premature deaths and 3,150 hospitalizations across the state, which translates to health benefits of about $36.8 billion.
Ivette Torres of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, based in the Inland Empire, called the rule a step in the right direction in resolving the “tremendous health impacts heavy trucks have had on our communities,” which has suffered unhealthful smog levels for most of August.
Another rule approved today expands pollution controls on ships that dock in California’s ports thousands of times a year. California is home to some of the busiest ports in the country. Even sitting still in harbors, ships churn out tons of pollutants that drift to neighboring communities, particularly near major ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland.
The new requirements bolster clean-air mandates that ports already have implemented over the past decade.
Since 2014, all ships have been required to switch to cleaner-burning fuel within 24 nautical miles of the coastline. And container, cruise and refrigerated cargo ships at California’s six largest ports must reduce their emissions by cutting auxiliary engines and plugging into the electric grid, or capturing the pollution billowing from their smokestacks.
The new standards — to be phased in from 2023 through 2027 — toughen those mandates, and broaden the requirements to include auto carriers and oil and fuel tankers, as well as additional ports and terminals.
That means ships making roughly 6,300 visits to California’s ports every year must comply, up from 4,000 under previous rules. By 2031, the new rule will eliminateroughly 2,000 tons of smog-forming gases and diesel soot per year.
Longshoremen worry that the increased costs of the regulations might push shipping companies to less-regulated ports across the country.
“We depend on the jobs that the port provides for us,” said Danny Miranda, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 94. “Without a national standard on air quality, we lose competitiveness with the other ports, and it has a great effect on our economy.”
The ship regulation will cost about $2.23 billion, including installation of shore power and systems that scrub pollution from smokestacks. That will add about $4.65 per cruise ticket, $7.66 for each car coming off an auto carrier and less than 1 cent per gallon of fuel in a tanker, according to the air board’s estimates.
Miranda said he was especially concerned given the economic crisis and recent drops in trade during the coronavirus pandemic. Ports are rebounding, however: the Port of Long Beach reported that July was its busiest month ever.
At the board hearing, oil company officials who opposed the rules said that the estimates for how much tankers pollute is overstated. But electrical workers welcomed the new jobs that increased demand for shore power would create.
Environmental advocates and residents say the regulations will help clear the air for several million people who live in communities near ports, where pollutants trigger asthma attacks and other health problems. But some said that the regulations don’t move fast enough.
“Keep in mind, these emissions reductions still won’t kick in for another couple years,” said Francis Yang, the Long Beach and South Los Angeles community organizer with the Sierra Club’s My Generation campaign. “That’s more time that ships get to continue to pollute our air. That’s more time for the same frontline communities to have to wait to breathe.”
“Our communities do experience high incidences of cancer and other respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease,” said Taylor Thomas, a research and policy analyst for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, which represents residents of Southeast Los Angeles and Long Beach. “Being able to clean up these industries and especially at the ports will really go a long way in reducing the negative health impacts that our communities experience.”
California’s previous rules cut auxiliary engine emissions from container, refrigerated cargo and cruise ships by about 80 percent, averaged across fleets idling at six major ports including Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.
But this excludes the roll-on/roll-off ships that carry cars and other rolling cargo, as well as tankers that account for about half of the pollution produced by docked ships. That means the communities around ports where these ships primarily dock, such as the Richmond and Stockton areas, don’t see the same protection.
Under the new rules, auto-carriers and tankers must cut portside pollution by roughly 90 percent beginning in 2025, according to air board staff. The targets for tankers start in Southern California, and expand north in 2027. Any terminal that exceeds a 20-visit threshold must comply. Ship and terminal operators can also comply by cutting pollution surrounding the port rather than at-berth, provided the air board approves.