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Why Can’t California Shake Its Natural Gas Habit?

Moss Landing Gas Plant
In 2018, California gas plants generated 41.7 million tons of CO2.


California is a national leader in clean energy generation, but to fully transition away from fossil fuels in the electric sector, the state will need to expand its focus beyond energy and start taking a hard look at capacity.

California has a resource adequacy program, which ensures that the state has enough electricity generating capacity at the ready to keep the grid reliable year-round. Up until now, the data about the types of resources (natural gas plants, solar, energy storage, etc.) being used to satisfy those reliability requirements has not been publicly available. But at the urging of UCS and other organizations, that information is now being made public.

So now the numbers are in, and they paint a startling picture of California’s continued reliance on natural gas.

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Bob Meinetz's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 27, 2019 12:00 pm GMT

Up until now, the data about the types of resources (natural gas plants, solar, energy storage, etc.) being used to satisfy those reliability requirements has not been publicly available.

I'm surprised to see that this had been the case-- what was the rationale up to that point?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 27, 2019 4:18 pm GMT

Matt, the California Energy Commission (CEC), appointed by the Governor, has been firmly under the thumb of natural gas interests for a long, long time.

It wasn't always that way. Back in the 1960s, even Sierra Club recognized the importance of nuclear energy for protecting the environment. President Will Siri:

“Nuclear power is one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation, perhaps next to population control in importance... Cheap energy in unlimited quantities is one of the chief factors allowing a large, rapidly growing population to set aside wildlands, open space and lands of high-scenic value. Even our capacity and leisure to enjoy this luxury is linked to the existence of cheap energy.”

Big money changed all that "conservation" nonsense:

"California’s former Governor, Edmund 'Pat' Brown, Gov. Jerry Brown’s father, started helping the Indonesian military dictatorship raise money to expand its state-owned oil industry. Pat Brown eventually raised an astonishing $13 billion ($100 billion in 2017 dollars) mostly from U.S. banks, the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters reported in 1990. In exchange for Brown’s services, the state Indonesian oil company Pertamina gave him exclusive and highly valuable rights to sell Indonesian oil in California...

At the very same time, another top Brown political aide-turned appointee, Richard Maullin, chairman of the California Energy Commission (CEC) began pressuring the state’s utilities to burn more oil rather than shift to nuclear energy.

And Gov. Brown appointed his friend and Getty Oil investment manager, Bill Newsom [present governor Gavin Newsom's father], to the State Superior Court."

Jerry Brown's Secret War on Clean Energy

Brown can take credit for being one of the chief architects of the modern anti-nuclear movement, and the fiction solar/wind/energy storage is anything but an excuse to sell more oil and gas.

Presumably the CEC, under the direction of Brown/Newsom, wanted to conceal the critical role natural gas played in keeping California's lights on until PG&E had committed to shutting down Diablo Canyon. That would make sense, anyway...but not much in California energy policy makes sense.

Above - Jerry Brown addresses a crowd of nearly 30,000 people at a "No Nukes" rally in San Luis Obispo, promising to oppose construction of Diablo Canyon Power Plant (1979).

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 27, 2019 5:27 pm GMT

Presumably the CEC, under the direction of Brown/Newsom, wanted to conceal the critical role natural gas played in keeping California's lights on until PG&E had committed to shutting down Diablo Canyon. That would make sense, anyway...but not much in California energy policy makes sense.

It sounds like this is speculation on your part, fair or not. Has there been an 'official' answer from them or anyone on the inside of those decisions?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 29, 2019 5:35 pm GMT

You mean, "Has Jerry Brown officially admitted his vast holdings in natural gas influenced his fight to replace 2.1 billion watts of clean nuclear energy at San Onofre with natural gas; that it influenced his appointment of 100% pro-gas Public Utilities/Energy comissioners; that it influenced the election of Jerry's sister, Kathleen Brown, to the Sempra Energy Board of Directors (Sempra owns the country's largest gas distributor, Southern California Gas); that the financing of Gavin Newsom's business career (wine, hospitality) by oil billionaire/J. Paul Getty grandson Gordon might have influenced his fight to replace clean nuclear energy at Diablo Canyon with natural gas?"

No, neither Jerry Brown nor Gavin Newsom has officially admitted that. Why would they?

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Dec 2, 2019 5:31 pm GMT

Fully depreciated assets are a low cost way of providing short duration capacity and this keeps the rate of return for new assets of all kinds lower.  Until these older assets are shut down, new investment will be difficult to justify, particularly with ramp profile that is required in California.  Being able to start and stop 2-3 times per day is a challenging profile and then not having the base load operating hours to recover costs.  Energy storage will continue to reduce the hours available to short duration peaking facilities while not fully displacing the need for that energy as seen by the 35% natural gas, much of which is probably being imported from Arizona.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 5, 2019 6:02 pm GMT

Gary, new investment is unnecessary - it's only a profit center for utilities and an added expense for ratepayers.
There's no reason to shut down older assets, especially ones that already serve the public with dispatchable, carbon-free electricity.

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