They were defeated in Sacramento each of the past two years. But supporters of a hotly debated plan to expand California’s power grid to other western states aren’t giving up.
Under a new proposal being drafted by Chris Holden, who chairs the state Assembly’s utilities and energy committee, California would organize a regional grid that could eventually cover the entire western United States. Supporters say a regional grid would make it easier for California to meet its climate change goals by tapping into cheap renewable energy sources from other states, like Wyoming wind power or Washington hydropower. California would also be able to sell excess solar power to other states.
The regional grid concept is a priority for Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed the Legislature to adopt it in 2016 and again in 2017. But opposition from labor unions, community-run electric companies and some environmentalists has stymied the governor. Opponents worry a regional grid would send high-paying solar and wind jobs out of state, raise the cost of electricity for homes and businesses, and cede control of the energy Californians consume to lawmakers in other states, including coal-friendly Utah and Wyoming.
There’s nothing in Holden’s new proposal to mollify the powerful labor unions, at least so far. But Holden’s amended language, which has been circulating in Sacramento for a few weeks, attempts to address concerns related to climate change and state control.
Regional grid advocates also say they’ve moved on from Brown’s original proposal, which was to merge California’s power grid operator with PacifiCorp, a Warren Buffett-owned utility with customers in six states. PacifiCorp operates six coal-fired power plants in Utah and Wyoming, and critics worried California would be forced to buy electricity from those plants, extending their lifetimes and leading to a rise in climate pollution.
Supporters of Brown’s plan say they’re now focused on partnerships with utility companies in Oregon and Washington, where state officials share California’s focus on fighting climate change, as well as Nevada, which is close to getting out of coal.
“We can really create a renewable engine on the West Coast,” said Lauren Navarro, an attorney at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.
The problem a regional grid is supposed to help solve is that two of the biggest sources of climate-friendly energy are intermittent: The sun goes down every evening, and the wind doesn’t always blow. But the larger the geographic area covered by a power grid, the more clean energy sources there are that can meet electricity demand at different times of day, at least in theory. A study commissioned by California officials found that a unified power grid covering most of the West could lead to $1.5 billion in savings for Californians by 2030, and a 3 to 4 percent decrease in regional climate pollution.
Partnering with Washington in particular, advocates say, would allow California to tap the state’s abundance of low-carbon hydropower dams, which have lots of unused capacity.
Hydropower distributed by the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency in the Pacific Northwest, would be the “holy grail” of a regional grid, said Don Furman, director of Fix the Grid, an advocacy group backed by environmentalists and energy companies.
“Bonneville is losing revenues because of the penetration of wind. They are hungry to participate in the California market,” said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a Sacramento-based trade group.