Several factors propelled the 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis, but one of the most powerful was his clumsy handling of an electric power crisis that had resulted in rolling blackouts.
The crisis resulted from the ill-conceived and misnamed “deregulation” of power supplies that the Legislature and Davis’ predecessor, Pete Wilson, had enacted seven years earlier. It virtually invited power suppliers such as Enron to game the system.
When the system failed, Davis was governor and failed to deal with it quickly and effectively. As Davis dithered and power supplies dwindled, one major utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, declared bankruptcy and a second, Southern California Edison, came very close to insolvency.
The state finally stepped into the dysfunctional market and began buying power itself to prevent further blackouts, but the political damage to Davis had been done and the recall campaign was rolling.
Newsom Issues Emergency Decree
This bit of history frames the emergency decree that Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also faces a recall election, issued last Friday.
With high temperatures driving power demand upwards, with drought curtailing hydroelectric generation, and with the state more dependent on less reliable solar and wind power, California faces a looming supply shortfall that could force power blackouts.
The state might be 3,500 megawatts short on hot afternoons this summer and as much as 5,000 megawatts short next summer if the drought continues.
Newsom wants the state’s energy regulators, the independent agency that operates the electric grid, and the utilities themselves to go all-out in tapping whatever sources they can to avoid blackouts. That would include the natural gas-fired plants that the state wants to phase out and auxiliary diesel- and natural gas-powered standby plants in industrial plants.
Looking for Power Sources Elsewhere
Newsom suspends environmental clearances and other regulatory procedures to accelerate new power sources, including battery banks to back up solar and wind projects. He also directs utilities to pay up to $2 per kilowatt-hour — many times the standard rate — to industrial customers for reducing their draw from the grid and shifting to backup generators, promising that the state will reimburse their outlays.
Newsom’s order declares that “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property exist due to rapid, unforeseen, sudden, and severe energy shortages throughout California caused by these climate events …”
The key word is “unforeseen,” a not-so-subtle disclaimer of political responsibility if blackouts occur. But in reality, he had plenty of warning that California was short of electric energy.
Last summer, the state experienced brief blackouts during late afternoon and early evening hours as solar power production began its daily decline and the state could not procure enough backup power from the regional grid to cover the deficit.
Newsom Failed to Heed Previous Warnings
It was a wakeup call about the state’s growing dependence on solar, wind, and other emission-free sources that lack the dependability of more traditional generation — unless the state has sufficient battery banks or other ways to store and supply power when needed the most.
“These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state. This cannot stand,” Newsom said at the time.
If Newsom had heeded the 2020 warning and done then what he wants to do now to improve resiliency, the state would have been better equipped to deal with the current shortfall. He has to hope that California will avoid blackouts in the six weeks between now and the close of voting on September 14, or that if the lights do go out, voters won’t punish him as they did Gray Davis 18 years ago.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.