Friday, October 7, 2022

The Unraveling of California’s Power Grid

 From UnDark:

“California Burning” is an expansion of that reportage, charting the history of PG&E from its Wild West-flavored early days through the stability of the mid-20th century, the turmoil of the late-20th century, and the malfeasance and climate-fueled disasters that have dogged it into the 21st. What emerges is a detail-dense account, but one that drills into increasingly urgent questions and implications. As of this writing, a new wildfire was just contained in Northern California, while earlier this month, an unprecedented heat wave caused PG&E to once again threaten rolling blackouts. And the relevance of this tale isn’t just confined to the West Coast — it should alarm anybody who’s ever turned on a light. As Blunt writes: “PG&E’s failure isn’t just a California story. It is, in many ways, a harbinger of challenges to come as climate change exacerbates the vulnerability of the grid, built decades ago to serve a different era of electricity demand.”

The first half of Blunt’s book traces the history of that grid. PG&E was one of many utility companies founded after the Gold Rush as California’s population exploded. After decades of competition, PG&E merged with a company called Great Western Power in 1930 and became a monopoly: prevailing wisdom at the time posited that it made little sense for utility companies to build redundant infrastructure. Instead, public good companies like PG&E shouldn’t have to deal with competition. A regulator would set fair prices and protect consumers from price swings.

This system worked — for a while. PG&E enjoyed a successful tenure in the boom years after World War II. During that time, they doubled their capacity to produce power as California flourished. But after a series of energy cost crises in the 1970s and 1980s, PG&E began the process of deregulation, setting out to compete on the market. The problem is that unlike most goods, electricity is difficult to supply in a competitive market. Produce too much electricity and transmission lines get congested; produce too little, and the grid goes down. Deregulation was a disaster, a “monster set loose,” Blunt writes, leading to soaring prices and rolling blackouts. (Read more.)


No comments: