Planet Earth

published : 2023-09-17

California Legislature Approves Plan to Boost Wind Energy and Prevent Blackouts

Five companies leased areas off the California coast, investing $750 million in building wind turbines

A photo of wind turbines off the coast of California, taken with a Nikon D850

The California Legislature voted Thursday to give Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration the authority to purchase a significant amount of electricity. This move aims to prevent blackouts and support the growth of the offshore wind industry on the West Coast.

Last year, five companies paid approximately $750 million to lease areas off the California coast for the construction of wind turbines. These projects, collectively generating enough electricity to power 3.5 million homes, will help alleviate strain on the state's electrical grid during extreme heat waves.

However, the state's largest utility companies have been hesitant to commit to purchasing power from these projects due to cost and construction timeline concerns. Apart from building the turbines, the projects also require port improvements and new power lines for energy transmission from the ocean to the main grid.

Alex Jackson, the director of the American Clean Power Association representing the wind project companies, emphasizes the importance of providing more certainty to ensure these major investments take place.

The approved bill allows the state to buy power from offshore wind projects. The cost will be covered through a surcharge placed on Californians' electricity bills. The exact surcharge amount will be determined by state regulators, and consumers will only start paying it once the wind projects are operational, which is expected to be several years from now.

An aerial view of a power grid in California during an extreme heat wave, captured with a Canon EOS R

California already has some of the highest electricity rates in the country.

Critics like Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle argue that this legislation means every ratepayer in California will bear the cost. However, supporters argue that the bill will lead to long-term savings on electric bills. California aims to obtain all its electricity from renewable or non-carbon sources by 2045, and offshore wind projects are crucial to achieving this goal as they generate power when solar energy is less abundant, particularly at night.

Supporters also claim that selling all the electricity from offshore wind projects to the state, instead of splitting it among multiple utility companies, would increase efficiency, control costs, and maintain lower rates. Scott Wetch, a lobbyist representing construction trade associations, stresses that minimizing rate impacts is crucial for meeting climate goals.

The bill grants the Department of Water Resources the authority to purchase power until 2035. Lawmakers will have to vote again to extend this authority.

In recent years, California has swiftly moved away from fossil fuels. The state has already implemented rules to ban the sale of most new gas-powered cars by 2035. However, maintaining reliable clean energy during this transition has been challenging.

A close-up shot of a surcharge on an electricity bill, highlighting the cost implications, photographed with a Sony Alpha A7 III

To address power grid strain, Gov. Newsom and the state Legislature allocated $3.3 billion for a 'strategic reliability reserve,' including the purchase of diesel-powered generators and extending the life of some gas-fired power plants that were scheduled to retire.

Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern expressed concerns during a recent public hearing about the efficacy of the state's energy strategy.

State law requires utility companies to meet energy demand, and the approved bill includes penalties for companies that fail to do so. This measure aims to prevent excessive reliance on the strategic reliability reserve, which uses air-polluting gas-powered generators.

Alice Reynolds, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, highlights the completion of over 100 projects in the past three years, adding 9,000 megawatts of new clean energy. The approved bill also expedites the development of new electric transmission projects.

The state urges swift action and widespread collaboration to achieve its energy goals.