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Record-breaking heat wave plunges California into fossil fuel conundrum

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A record-breaking heat wave has thrown California into a fossil fuel conundrum: The state has had to rely more on natural gas to generate electricity and stave off blackouts while the governor’s administration Gavin Newsom works to end the use of oil and gas.

The heat wave that began more than a week ago was hotter and longer than any other in the state, and it put unprecedented strain on the power supply. This prompted Newsom to implore people to use less power to avoid blackouts – a practice of turning off some people’s power to save energy so lights can stay on for everyone. world.

The effort worked, but meeting the state’s increased energy demand also required activating generators powered by natural gas, which is still an important part of the state’s energy picture. The Democratic governor’s calls for conservation have also drawn criticism of new state policies governing electric vehicles and other measures that will only increase energy demand.

Newsom, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said the “pretty dire” circumstances are forcing the state to turn to more natural gas as a backup supply.

“We all want to accelerate the elimination of gas, but this is a sobering reality check,” he said.

Tuesday’s 52,000 megawatt demand set a record as triple-digit temperatures blanketed much of the state. Sacramento hit a record high of 116 degrees (47 degrees Celsius), and normally cooler places like San Francisco and San Diego also hit scorching temperatures.

The demand will only increase in the years to come. By 2045, when the state is mandated to obtain all its electricity from non-carbon or renewable sources, demand is expected to reach 78,000 megawatts due to the increase in the number of electric appliances and electric cars on the road, according to estimates by the California Energy Commission.

To meet this demand, the government and major utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric are working to develop renewable sources such as solar and wind power, as well as large-scale batteries capable of storing this energy for use. nocturnal. Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered utilities to provide enough additional electricity for 2.5 million homes by 2026.

Newsom just signed legislation to keep the state’s last nuclear power plant open for five years beyond its scheduled shutdown in 2025, and he suggested on Wednesday that the plant could operate even longer if necessary.

The sun is generally the state’s largest energy source during the day. But as warmer weather has arrived, natural gas has outpaced renewables for longer over the past week, according to the California Independent System Operator, which is responsible for managing and maintaining grid reliability. state electric.

Gas was the main source of power all day Tuesday – the expected spike in brutal temperatures.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the state fired up four gasoline-powered generators for the first time to add more supply, enough to power 120,000 homes. He also planned to rely on diesel generators.

But some of the state’s fossil-fuel plants have their own reliability issues. Several power plants, including aging gas-fired plants along the California coast, have partially failed or produced less power than expected, according to the ISO.

Four of the plants, which draw water from the ocean to cool their equipment, were scheduled to close in 2020, but the state has continually extended their lives to help stabilize the power supply. They now plan to stay open until at least 2023, but could last even longer under legislation Newsom signed in June.

If the state wants to keep old coastal gas plants online beyond 2023, it needs to give the companies that own them more certainty about the future so they can decide whether to spend money on them. maintain, said Siva Gunda, vice chairman of the California Energy Commission, the state’s energy planning agency.

“Everything must go full throttle” with the “ambitious goal” of cleaner energy sources making up the bulk of the state’s energy reserves, he said.

The intensity of the heat wave only underscores the need for California to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, he said.

The network’s challenges also provided plenty of material for Newsom’s political critics, who argued that Democrats’ policies to move away from oil and gas don’t add up.

The state recently passed new regulations aimed at ending the sale of most new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. But during the heat wave, authorities also urged people not to recharge cars or using other large appliances at night. The state did not ban car charging, but rather urged people to do so during the day.

“Gavin Newsom – You have to buy an electric car. Also Gavin Newsom – But you can’t charge it,” Republican state Senator Melissa Melendez tweeted Tuesday night after the state sent out an emergency alert without thread urging people to reduce their energy consumption.

Environmental groups say planning failures led California to rely on natural gas — and even increase its use — during the heat wave. The state needs to set clearer goals and benchmarks to meet its clean energy goals and ensure fossil fuels are not used as a fallback, said Ari Eisenstadt, campaign manager for Regenerate California. , a campaign to end the use of fossil fuels in the state.

“People have been talking about natural gas as a bridge for decades,” he said. “And if it really was a bridge, we would have crossed it already.”

Associated Press reporter Michael R. Blood contributed reporting from Beverly Hills, Calif.

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