California Just Approved Five Temporary Gas Plants as Drought Cripples Hydropower

California Just Approved Five Temporary Gas Plants as Drought Cripples Hydropower
Photo: David McNew / Staff, Getty Images

Wildfires and declining water levels at reservoirs have threatened California’s power supply at various points this summer. Desperate to avoid blackouts amid the compounding crisis, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is eyeing the construction of five “temporary” gas-fuelled plants in the coming months.

According to Bloomberg, California’s Energy Commission approved licenses for the emergency gas generators on Tuesday for up to five years, each of which reportedly has an individual capacity to generate 30 megawatts of energy. Ryan Endean, a spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources, said that now that the agency has been given the green light, it will immediately begin work on procuring the units, which will be installed at existing power plants across the state and are set to be operational by mid-September.

California’s utilities have been stressed in recent years as a result of a range of climate change-induced maladies, including extreme heat, drought, and raging wildfires. After an investigation into a series of rolling blackouts that occurred in the state in the summer of 2020, California’s three main energy agencies also concluded that inadequate supply-demand planning had played an active role in the critical energy shortages.

Approval for the five new plants comes less than a month after Newsom declared a state of emergency in California over the power grid’s limitations, during which he pledged not only to expedite construction on existing clean energy projects while also suspending “certain permitting requirements to allow greater energy production.” Although Newsom has repeatedly said that he supports a managed decline of fossil fuel production in the state over the coming years, his government has approved more than 9,000 new oil and gas permits since January 2019.

Experts and energy watchdogs have grown anxious that that natural gas companies would begin to exploit the threat of blackouts as a way to push their own agendas forward. Shana Lazerow, a staff attorney at environmental justice nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment, told Gizmodo in 2020 that she feared that the natural gas industry was “just salivating,” over the potential to manipulate the market during an energy crisis and that “if they go by the Enron playbook, they can say the state needs more natural gas to provide a backup for unreliable renewables.”

While some in California have noted that the decision to give the emergency gas generators the go-ahead was necessary in order to avert crippling blackouts in the state, others worried that the decision to fall back on fossil fuels was an indication that the state’s government might soon renege on its promises. Turning to gas will make it harder for the state to get 60% of its electricity from renewable power and reduce carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

The gas plants may add capacity to generate electricity, but California still may face blackouts due to the fact that utility transmission lines have been implicated in wildfires across the state. Climate change-fuelled heat has, in turn, allowed those sparks to turn into conflagrations, including the state’s deadliest blaze ever. Utility PG&E has agreed to bury some of its lines, but the process will take years. But it shows that in addition to decarbonising the electricity system, fireproofing it will be necessary as well.