California Is Moving In the Wrong Energy Security Direction

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In the soon-to-be-released Hoover Institution Press book, Blueprint for America, edited by former Secretary of State George Shultz, retired Admiral James Ellis explores how the United States is primed and ready to develop an energy security strategy. While Admiral Ellis wrote his chapter in the context of the United States, his takeaway to focus on energy security and not a singular energy item is just as appropriate for California to heed.

As Admiral Ellis writes, energy security is energy that is "always available (even in times of duress), that [energy] is reliable (not prone to sudden disruption, whether intentional or accidental), resilient (able to recover quickly when it is interrupted), and affordable (both in the personal and macroeconomic sense, including price shocks)." Using this framework, it's apparent that under current policy - most specifically the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) - California is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to ensuring future energy security. And yet, a simple, little tweak can dramatically improve the Golden State's energy situation.

Renewable Portfolio Standards Decrease Energy Security: RPSs mandate private (and in some cases, government owned) electricity utilities to purchase a specific percentage of their power from permitted renewable energy sources. The devil is in the details, however. For instance, in California, the allowed renewable sources include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and even wave and tidal energy, but notably exclude nuclear and large hydro-electric. Why this decreases energy security is because of the elevated intermittency of RPSs. Wind and solar accounted for approximately 60% of the RPS power in 2014, both of which are intermittent power sources. So since electricity is required all day, every day, California's electricity grid needs to fill in the gaps with base load power. But because nuclear and large hydro-electric power are excluded from the RPS - both of which are carbon-free base load sources - California must rely on natural gas and coal, often from out-of-state. As California's RPS mandates step-up to 30% in 2020 and 50% in 2030, this intermittency issue will lead to Golden State's energy grid to become less available, less reliable, less resilient, and less affordable: all the opposite of enhancing energy security.

Low Carbon Portfolio Standards Would Enhance Energy Security: But there's actually a simple fix, replace California's RPS with a Low Carbon Portfolio Standard (LCPS), which increases the permitted sources of power to all low or non-carbon energy sources, including nuclear and large hydro-electric. This broadens the choices utilities have, which increases affordability for consumers and eliminates the intermittency problem as the mandated percentage increases over time, which increases availability, reliability, and resiliency - all the while still maintaining the "green" intent of California energy's policy.

Necessary Ingredient - Eliminate the Resistance to Nuclear: But standing in the way of swapping out California's RPS for a LCPS is the state's political and legal resistance to nuclear power. In fact, anti-climate change advocates are actively trying to eliminate one of the California's last remaining nuclear power sites, despite the fact that it will mean California will become more reliant on natural gas and coal and likely increase the state's CO2 emissions. The legal barrier standing in the way is a 1976 amendment to the Warren-Alquist Act, which established the California Energy Commission. This amendment created a de facto ban on nuclear power construction by requiring the Energy Commission to certify that sufficient storage capacity for spent nuclear fuel and waste existed. With the federal storage agenda in political limbo, the Energy Commission has been unable to approve, let alone even consider, new nuclear power plant plans. Until new nuclear power generation capacity can be added to the grid, switching from an RPS to a LCPS wouldn't advance energy security - or the green agenda. Repealing this amendment, though, won't happen until the political culture of modern environmentalism welcomes nuclear as a carbon-free base load alternative.

All too often, Sacramento views policy issues through narrow lenses when, in fact, a panorama is more appropriate and productive. Energy is one of those issues. While California's leaders have been myopically concerned about climate change in reference to energy, if it instead viewed the issue in terms of energy security, the state's energy policy could be effective and efficient and green.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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