California, Here We Come?

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A famous song of the 1920s went, “California, here I come.”

Today, one might sing that line with dread rather than anticipation as rolling blackouts afflict California residents. But the same public policies that have brought disaster to the Golden State are being pushed with vigor elsewhere, including here in Virginia.

The immediate cause of the rolling blackouts is simple. California cannot produce enough power to meet demand. In the middle of a heat wave, when demand on the power grid increases, enough supply cannot be found, especially at the end of the day when solar power fades.

Many of the actors in this debacle, from grid operators to utility regulators to the state’s top public officials, point their fingers at each other. The fundamental culprit, however, is California’s mandate that all power must come from clean energy by 2045. The mandate also puts down benchmarks before then, for example setting a 50 percent clean energy goal in 2025.

Cleaner energy in itself is a worthwhile goal. California erred by setting arbitrary goals and then placing increasing burdens of electricity generation on wind and solar power, sources that simply have not proved up to the task.

To add insult atop injury to California’s citizens, between 2011 and 2018 they were hit by electricity prices increases nearly seven times higher than those in the rest of the country, according to the advocacy group Environmental Progress.

The dysfunction in California’s energy policies is plain to see, which is why it is alarming that some would bring these policies to other states and to the United States at large.

In April, Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act requiring 100 percent carbon-free energy in the Commonwealth by 2050.

According to the State Corporation Commission, which regulates electricity rates, the mandate to build solar and wind generation capacity will drive a rise of 45 percent in the rates paid by Dominion Energy customers over the next decade.

So Virginians should brace themselves for at least one feature of California’s electricity regime, the surging prices.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act will also shut down most coal-fired power plants by the end of 2024. One of coal’s assets is its capacity to act as a baseload power source. Unlike wind or solar power, it can provide power at any time. Closing coal plants takes away a reliable energy source that can make a crucial difference during a time of increased demand, as California’s power customers likely know all too well by now.

In spite of these obvious flaws, proponents of wind and solar mandates counter that climate change is too urgent, and that their policies are the only way forward to save the planet. But there are alternatives that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions without forcing skyrocketing rates and requiring customers to accept lapses in service.

We can pursue a strategy that focuses on energy production within the United States and development of new technologies that can be exported to the world.

Between 2005 and 2018, total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States decreased by 10 percent. Clean power mandates did not drive this decline. Instead, a major contributor was the use of natural gas produced in the United States, which burns cleaner than other fossil fuels.

Energy production in the United States, which takes place under greater environmental scrutiny than in other energy producers around the world, increased jobs without driving air pollution. As long as fossil fuels will be used, and they will be in other parts of the world whatever California and Virginia might do, we should encourage the use of responsibly produced American fossil fuels.

American companies and laboratories are also hard at working finding ways to burn fossil fuels in a cleaner manner or put the byproducts to use. We should encourage these developments, which can then be deployed in our country or sold around the world, controlling pollution while creating jobs and boosting economic growth.

Researchers in our region have made great advances in this field, as U.S. Department of Energy officials learned in a meeting I recently set up between them and Southwest Virginia energy innovators.

As China constructs power plants in sub-Saharan Africa using slightly-improved 1970s technology, the United States can move forward with cutting-edge research and development that benefits the environment and American jobs.

California’s experience with clean energy mandates is an alarm bell. Paying higher rates and accepting intermittent service cannot be the only possibility for our energy future. We should heed the warnings and pursue a better alternative.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.