Jerry Brown and Warren Buffett want to rewire the West
THEIR PLAN COULD SAVE CONSUMERS BILLIONS OF DOLLARS AND SLASH CLIMATE POLLUTION. BUT CRITICS ARE WORRIED IT WOULD DO THE OPPOSITE.
Stephen Berberich can see the future. He has to.
On a Friday morning in December, Berberich sat in a conference room in Folsom, outside Sacramento, in front of a picture window offering a bird’s-eye look at the high-tech control center for California’s electric grid. Down below, staffers scheduled transactions between power plants and utilities, watched for outages and monitored the careful balance between supply and demand.
As president of the California Independent System Operator, it’s Berberich’s job to know how much electricity the state is going to need at any given moment and to make sure just the right amount of energy is flowing through the power lines. But in this moment, he was thinking past the end of the day, to a not-so-distant future where there’s far more solar and wind power flooding the grid.
“One of the hallmarks, without question, is that you have more generation at times of the year than you need,” Berberich said, referring to the fact that sunlight and wind can’t be ramped up or down to match demand, like traditional power plants can. Increasingly, the California grid operator — CAISO for short — is forced to pay solar plants to stop generating when there isn’t enough demand. “You see it in Europe, you see it in Germany, we see it. And turning off renewable energy, in my mind, is a tragedy.”
Gov. Jerry Brown and investor Warren Buffett, the world’s second-wealthiest person, think they have a partial solution to that problem: Find California a bigger grid.
Right now, CAISO oversees 80 percent of the California grid, including the wires owned by Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric. Under Brown and Buffett’s plan, CAISO would expand to oversee PacifiCorp, a Buffett-owned utility that serves customers in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and a slice of Northern California.
If that happens, advocates say, California solar farms could operate more hours by selling excess energy to other states, rather than having to shut down when supply exceeds in-state demand. California could also tap wind power from places with especially strong gusts, like New Mexico and Wyoming. Some out-of-state wind farms already plan to sell electricity to California, including the massive Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project in Wyoming. But institutional and financial barriers make those kinds of projects the exception, not the rule, grid experts say.
A more integrated western grid would also bring financial benefits, according to supporters of CAISO expansion. If the grid operator expands to include utilities across the West, they say, California homes and businesses could save billions of dollars on their electricity bills, in part because it would be cheaper for the Golden State to meet its ambitious renewable energy goals.
“The elevator pitch is: It’s good for customers and it’s good for the environment,” Berberich said.
Here’s the catch: A lot of people don’t think so.
In California, the grid expansion plan has divided environmentalists. While some green groups support the proposal, the Sierra Club is worried it could have unintended consequences, like giving coal-friendly Utah and Wyoming the power to force dirty electricity into California, undermining the state’s environmental policies and leading to increased climate pollution across the West. Decision-makers in Utah and Wyoming have the opposite fear: They don’t want to be subjected to climate policies they see as unnecessary and potentially damaging to their fossil fuel industries.
Those concerns are only the beginning. Some critics say California should focus on building renewable energy facilities within its borders, rather than sending high-quality jobs out of state. Others see grid expansion as a money-making venture for Buffett’s PacifiCorp utility, which might be able to get California to pay for a massive, lucrative transmission project called Energy Gateway.
Donald Trump’s election has thrown another wrench in the works for supporters of CAISO expansion. Critics say Trump’s administration could interfere with the grid expansion plan, giving Utah and Wyoming greater authority to dictate energy policy across the six-state grid. More broadly, Trump’s presidency is expected to increase tensions between deep-red states like Utah and Wyoming, where politicians could be emboldened in their efforts to support fossil fuels, and dark-blue states like California, where lawmakers have pledged to double down on their progressive agenda.
For months, representatives from the six states have been negotiating an expansion agreement, which would need to be approved by the California Legislature and by public utilities commissions in the other five states. California lawmakers are expected to take up the proposal this year — if Brown thinks it still has a chance.
Sharing the sun and the wind
The continental United States is divided into three main electric grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and independent-minded Texas, which runs its own grid. While much of the East is covered by five large “regional transmission organizations,” which span multiple states, the West is divided into 35 “balancing authorities” — independent grid operators that are responsible for balancing supply and demand on their own systems, with limited help from the surrounding systems. CAISO is by far the largest balancing authority in the West.