Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, June 23, and here’s what’s happening across California:
The solar power glut
California invested heavily in solar power. Now there’s so much that other states are sometimes paid to take it. With no single entity in charge of the energy policy in California, there is an ever-increasing glut of power that is proving costly for electricity users. Rates have risen faster here than in the rest of the U.S., and Californians now pay about 50% more than the national average.Los Angeles Times
Shooting in Palmdale
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies accidentally shot and killed a teenager in Palmdale early Thursday when their bullets bounced off the ground as they opened fire on an aggressive dog. “He may have been struck by one of the skip rounds in what we’re calling an extremely, extremely unfortunate incident,” Capt. Christopher Bergner said. Los Angeles Times
Something we can all agree on
Elected officials from both parties have supported an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast, which, after years of work, was scheduled to begin its first limited public operation next year. But President Trump’s budget proposal calls for cuts that experts say would kill the warning network. Now keeping this program in place is a rare issue that unites Democrats and Republicans in California. Los Angeles Times
A new police cadet development
A Los Angeles police officer was arrested on suspicion of having unlawful sex with a 15-year-old member of the cadet program, and may have had knowledge of the alleged theft of police cruisers and other equipment by cadets in recent weeks. Chief Charlie Beck said he personally arrested Officer Robert Cain, 31, a 10-year veteran of the department, at the LAPD’s 77th Street Division at 11 a.m. Thursday. “I find the actions of Cain, if they are proven, to be despicable,” Beck said at a news conference. Los Angeles Times
After all these years: Charles Manson follower Patricia Krenwinkel lost her latest bid for freedom on Thursday as parole hearing commissioners rejected a request by the state’s longest-serving female inmate to be released after a hearing in Corona. Los Angeles Times
Where to retire? “Developers are increasingly building ‘multi-generational’ communities, lured by the massive baby boomer population aging into retirement.” Los Angeles Times
A quick turnabout: “Faced with dozens of letters in opposition and a crowd carrying signs saying ‘voluntary,’ the West Hollywood City Council last night quickly yielded to owners of condominiums who demanded it not require them to protect their buildings against earthquakes.” WEHOville
The Baller stays: The Lakers chose Lonzo Ball with No. 2 overall selection in the NBA Draft. Los Angeles Times
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
New candidate jumps in: Conservative Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen is jumping into California’s 2018 race for governor, a move that could splinter the GOP vote in what promises to be a crowded and competitive race. Los Angeles Times
A call for an audit: Asserting that the Antelope Valley receives only $1 for every $10 in federal homeless funds sent to central Los Angeles, State Sen. Scott Wilk has called for an audit of the agency that distributes the money. Los Angeles Times
Under fire: Nancy Pelosi finds herself again in the crosshairs amid more Democratic disappointment. Wall Street Journal
San Bernardino is back:After five years that brought major changes to San Bernardino, the struggling city is officially out of bankruptcy. The question now is what happens next. Los Angeles Times
CRIME AND COURTS
The video is absolutely crazy:It shows a motorcyclist kicking a vehicle on the 14 Freeway in Santa Clarita on Wednesday and triggering a wild, chain-reaction crash that left one motorist injured when his truck flipped. Los Angeles Times
Teacher arrested: A fifth-grade teacher in South El Monte has been arrested on suspicion of inappropriately touching students, and investigators are trying to determine whether there are other potential victims, authorities said. Los Angeles Times
New podcast: A couple of inmates inside San Quentin State Prison have launched a series of regular audio dispatches, and it’s now one of the most popular podcasts in the country. NBC News
Fighting those fires: Despite persistently high temperatures working against them, firefighters have kept a 1,500-acre blaze burning north of Big Bear Lake from spreading deeper into the wooded area, authorities said Thursday. Los Angeles Times
Crazy prices: Bay Area home prices reached yet another all-time high in May.The Mercury News
Get ready for the summer: Here are the seven concerts that prove that no one likes rock music more than people from Southern California. The Press Enterprise
About that movie: “Chinatown” is the story of white supremacy and gentrification in L.A. LA Weekly
It’s official: Oscar-winning director Ron Howardis taking over the reins of Lucasfilm’s Han Solo “Star Wars” spin-off. Los Angeles Times
What a celebration: The Turkey Testicle Festival is the biggest social event in the stretch of Sierra foothillsnear Dunlap. Los Angeles Times
Weird milestone: Huntington Beach resident Jeff Reitz marked a milestone of epic proportions this week at Disneyland when he walked through the turnstiles for the 2,000th straight day. KABC
Los Angeles area: sunny Friday and Saturday. San Diego: partly cloudy Friday, sunny Saturday. San Francisco area: partly cloudy Friday and Saturday. Sacramento: sunny Friday and Saturday. More weather is here.
Today’s California memory comes from Kory McFarland:
“As a youngster growing up in the Hills overlooking the San Gabriel Valley, Hacienda Heights was our playground in the ’60s. Orange groves and avocados grew all over the region. My youngest brother and I spent most weekends trekking through the local hills with a vigor akin to an early pioneer seeking his fortune in gold. We would walk the local railroad tracks until reaching the hills separating our town and Whittier. Most days we would see deer, rabbit, coyotes and the occasional bull. We never wore red. Great memories made in our local hills with my brother, and we never worried for our safety. A sign of those times in our Golden State.”
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. Send us an email to let us know what you love or fondly remember about our state. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
In this hyper-partisan era, there may be one issue that unites California Democrats and Republicans: Earthquakes.
Elected officials from both parties have supported an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast that, after years of work, was scheduled to begin its first limited public operation next year.
But President Trump’s budget proposal calls for cuts that experts say would kill the warning network.
The next few months will determine whether officials on both sides of the aisle can come together to save it. One of the system’s biggest proponents is a Republican congressman who has an influential role in shaping the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey. The district of Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) lies on top of the San Jacinto fault, one of California’s most active.
Calvert has been joined by Democrats and Republicans across the West Coast urging a reversal of the funding cuts. Twenty-eight California state legislators, including the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly, signed a letter to Calvert urging that Congress reject Trump’s proposal to end federal funding.
It remains uncertain whether they can succeed in a Republican-controlled Congress that doesn’t necessarily have much love for blue-leaning California and the West Coast.
But there is also this political and geologic reality: Most Californians live near an earthquake fault, and earthquake faults in California run through congressional districts represented by both Democrats and Republicans.
In Washington, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress gave Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior, an earful at a hearing about the proposal to end the U.S. Geological Survey’s participation in the early warning system for the next budget year.
Congress allocated $10.2 million for the system for the current budget year. Trump’s budget for the next budget year proposes nothing.
Officials estimate it will cost $16.5 million a year to operate and maintain the system.
‘I live pretty close to a fault’
“This is a public warning program that will protect millions of lives and critical infrastructure,” Calvert, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on issues related to the Department of the Interior, told Zinke. “We’ve obviously spent a substantial amount of money into that program. California is very concerned about this. And I am, too. I live pretty close to a fault myself, so I certainly care about what we’re going to do on that.”
Scientists suspect that a joint rupture of the San Jacinto fault — the one underneath Calvert’s district — and San Andreas fault in 1812 triggered a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that destroyed Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Great Stone Church, killing more than 40 people attending Mass.
Democrats on the subcommittee were also critical. “It’s irresponsible,” said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the panel’s ranking Democrat. “The budget is unacceptable and I expect my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject it.”
Critical seconds or minutes of warning
Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said early warnings are essential to protect his home state. Washington was part of a broad swath of the West Coast in 1700 that was inundated by a catastrophic tsunami after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit the Cascadia fault system in the Pacific Ocean, paralleling Northern California to Vancouver Island.
It was so powerful, entire sections of the Pacific coastline dropped by as much as 5 feet, allowing the ocean to rush in and leave behind dead trees by the shore; Native American stories told of “how the prairie became ocean,” and how canoes were flung into trees. The tsunami was so powerful that the Japanese have records of the destructive waves destroying homes and rice paddies along that nation’s east coast.
Early warning of an incoming earthquake and tsunami would save lives and give people more time to evacuate, such as for elementary school children to climb up to vertical evacuation centers high enough to avoid a tsunami.
‘Millions of lives at stake’
“I honestly don’t know how to explain to my constituents why the president’s budget zeroes this out,” Kilmer said. “There are literally millions of lives at stake.”
In his response, Zinke, who earned a geology degree from the University of Oregon, said the proposed budget made some tough choices and focused on core services. But he added that he understood the system’s importance, and noted that his alma mater’s president talked to him about the system as well.
“Obviously, you have the last say on it,” Zinke told lawmakers of the final budget. “I’m glad to work with you on it.”
In a subsequent interview, Kilmer said he hoped the show of support would make a difference.
“I was pleased to see bipartisan concern raised about that funding,” Kilmer said.
‘I want us to be integrating every new building into the system’
If federal funding is maintained, plans are underway for the U.S. Geological Survey to roll out the earthquake early warning system to the public in Los Angeles through smartphone apps by next year, as Southern California has the highest concentration of seismic sensors in the ground on the West Coast.
At an earthquake safety event at the Getty House this month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti imagined a day when alerts could be pumped into buildings through Internet-connected devices, like smart TVs, Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple’s Siri. The city has also been working with technology companies and phone carriers to get the alerts out to people as quickly as possible.
“I want us to be integrating every new building into the system,” Garcetti said. And someday, he’d like the warnings to pop up on phones without people needing to even download an app, in the manner Amber Alerts are done.
Preparing for the rollout
But with federal funding still uncertain, Garcetti urged the public to “please, get on the phone with your members of Congress.”
“Public safety is a nonpartisan issue, and should never be politicized,” added Jeff Gorell, Garcetti’s deputy mayor for homeland security and public safety, who is a Republican and former state assemblyman. “The consequences of stopping or stymieing progress could not be any more dire.”
Gorell said the goal over the next year and a half is to ensure that a functional smartphone app is available and servers are available “robust enough to eventually get this into every smartphone and every classroom in the city of Los Angeles.”
More Los Angeles classrooms could be given the warning system initially, followed by a rollout to home technology devices that are linked to the Internet, before a wider distribution of the system is executed.
Preventing out-of-control fires
Early warnings, combined with efforts to retrofit seismically vulnerable apartments and commercial buildings, would dramatically help California weather big earthquakes, experts say. Seismologist Lucy Jones said the warnings could be used to automatically shut off systems that would otherwise contribute to fires that would grow out of control.
“That might make the difference of whether or not we topple over a tipping point where we can’t control the fires at all,” Jones said. “All of these things are incredibly important, and we’ve got to do them together. And when we do it, we’re going to reduce the fear level. Because if you know you can make yourself safer, that’s a better way of taking control.”
The system works on a simple principle: The shaking from an earthquake travels at the speed of sound through rock — slower than the speed of today’s communications systems. That means it would take more than a minute for, say, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that starts at the Salton Sea to shake up Los Angeles, 150 miles away, traveling on the state’s longest fault, the San Andreas.
Countries around the world have implemented earthquake early warning systems, including Mexico and Japan.
The West Coast’s prototype system has had some early successes. When a magnitude 6 earthquake hit Napa in 2014, the system gave researchers in San Francisco about eight seconds of warning before shaking began.
USGS research geophysicist Ken Hudnut said it’s only a matter of time before a major earthquake hits, something so large that nothing like it has been seen in hundreds of years.
“The Big One is coming,” Hudnut said. “The threat of a Big One on the southern San Andreas fault — the Coachella segment, where they have the big concerts down near Palm Springs — that threat is especially real.”
There, the average time between big earthquakes is about every 150 years, Hudnut said.
But it has been 300 years since the last major earthquake there.
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, June 22, and here’s what’s happening across California:
Travel, love, create, yearn
Kam Redlawsk’s story is both tragic and inspiring. She has a rare genetic disorder that progressively weakens muscles as it inches throughout her body. One day she’ll likely experience something similar to quadriplegia. Until then Redlawsk lives every day to her fullest. Los Angeles Times
More on that raise
A new salary package, backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and heading to the City Council next week, will give six raises in five years to thousands of DWP workers. This bump could spur other unions to seek the same deal, placing new burdens on a city budget already under significant stress. Los Angeles Times
So why did Uber investors oust Travis Kalanick? They feared that Kalanick wouldn’t evolve as a leader quickly enough — and that as long as he and his negative image were around, Uber would struggle to recruit strong candidates for a long list of high-ranking openings, people familiar with the discussions said. Los Angeles Times
— The tricky task facing Uber: Finding a new CEO who can improve the culture while continuing growth. Los Angeles Times
— And Uber offers a lesson about fixes needed across Silicon Valley. New York Times
— Is all this the power of one blog post? The Verge
And over at the Department of Children and Family Services
Thousands of regular assistance checks from DCFS failed to reach recipients after the agency implemented a new computer system in October. Due to glitches in the conversion, the department for several months failed to pay foster care parents, young people living on extended foster care assistance, group homes and others. When The Times first reported the problem in January, DCFS officials said approximately 700 payments were missed. That number eventually grew to almost 4,500, DCFS figures show. Los Angeles Times
Indictment in the desert: Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford has been charged with illegally receiving more than $60,000 a year from local consultants and failing to publicly disclose the income on economic statements, prosecutors said Wednesday. Los Angeles Times
Beware of wildfires: A punishing heat wave that brought record temperatures to California this week may be easing, but the risk of wildfire was expected to grow Thursday as a result of continued warmth, increased winds and lush ground cover, according to the National Weather Service. Los Angeles Times
Soaring prices! The median home price in L.A. County has broken the record, which was set in 2007 during the last decade’s housing boom. Los Angeles Times
Coyote arrested: A 26-year-old man was arrested Sunday after a Mexican woman he picked up near the border died while hiding in his truck, authorities said.Los Angeles Times
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Rich county gets to limit growth: Lawmakers are considering a measure that would allow parts of Marin County to limit growth more tightly than other regions of California. Los Angeles Times
In the spotlight: Now that both John Chiang and Gavin Newsom are running for governor, they are drawing rare attention to the little-known but powerful State Lands Commission. Los Angeles Times
In Orange County: “Nowhere, with the exception of the White House, was the news of Republican Karen Handel’s special election victory more welcome than in Orange County, California.” Politico
CRIME AND COURTS
Some relief: Los Angeles police may not hold impounded cars for 30 days without justification, a federal appeals court decided Wednesday. Los Angeles Times
Out in the desert: The Mojave desert’s massive size and harsh conditions make it the perfect place to hide a body. Vice
See you in court: Students and Jewish community members filed a lawsuit Monday against San Francisco State University and Cal State’s board of trustees, alleging that the San Francisco campus of the country’s largest public university system has long cultivated a hostile environment for Jewish students. Los Angeles Times
Oakland police under fire: A court-appointed California investigator has blamed Oakland’s mayor and the city’s former police chief for mishandling and downplaying a sexual misconduct scandal in the city’s police department. Associated Press
It wasn’t a gun: A suspected carjacker who was fatally shot Tuesday by South Gate police was armed with a replica firearm, according to authorities. Los Angeles Times
Another drowning: On Tuesday, divers with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office recovered the body of a swimmer from the North Fork American River in Auburn. Los Angeles Times
See you in court, part 2: Walt Disney Co. is being sued by a child development expert who alleges that the 2015 Pixar movie “Inside Out” used her original idea for an animated program that would have explored children’s emotions through a host of characters representing different moods. Los Angeles Times
Parting ways: Four months into production — and less than a year before it’s due in theaters — the directors of the Han Solo “Star Wars” spinoff were removed from the project. Los Angeles Times
Where to go: Here are some great summer travel adventures along California’s lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Los Angeles Times
Meals for the neediest: “California nonprofits are advocating for a medically tailored meal pilot program for low-income residents.” KQED
San Francisco and Los Angeles area: sunny Thursday, partly cloudy Friday. San Diego: partly cloudy Thursday and Friday. Sacramento: sunny Thursday and Friday.
Today’s California memory comes from Joseph Torres:
“My earliest memories are growing up as a kid in Lincoln Heights in the 60’s and always playing outside with a group of neighborhood kids. I remember impromptu baseball games on Gates Street or wild football games at nearby Lincoln Park with my plastic Rams helmet. In order to fund our occasional visits to the Starlight Theater on Broadway to catch the latest scary movie like ‘The Blob’ or ‘The Tingler,’ we kids would collect a ton of soda bottles, get the refunds to pay for the 35-cent movie tickets and candy. That was living high on the hog.”
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. Send us an email to let us know what you love or fondly remember about our state. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
On 14 days during March, Arizona utilities got a gift from California: free solar power.
Well, actually better than free. California produced so much solar power on those days that it paid Arizona to take excess electricity its residents weren’t using to avoid overloading its own power lines.
It happened on eight days in January and nine in February as well. All told, those transactions helped save Arizona electricity customers millions of dollars this year, though grid operators declined to say exactly how much. And California also has paid other states to take power.
The number of days that California dumped its unused solar electricity would have been even higher if the state hadn’t ordered some solar plants to reduce production — even as natural gas power plants, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, continued generating electricity.
Solar and wind power production was curtailed a relatively small amount — about 3% in the first quarter of 2017 — but that’s more than double the same period last year. And the surge in solar power could push the number even higher in the future.
Why doesn’t California, a champion of renewable energy, use all the solar power it can generate?
The answer, in part, is that the state has achieved dramatic success in increasing renewable energy production in recent years. But it also reflects sharp conflicts among major energy players in the state over the best way to weave these new electricity sources into a system still dominated by fossil-fuel-generated power.
No single entity is in charge of energy policy in California. This has led to a two-track approach that has created an ever-increasing glut of power and is proving costly for electricity users. Rates have risen faster here than in the rest of the U.S., and Californians now pay about 50% more than the national average.
Perhaps the most glaring example: The California Legislature has mandated that one-half of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030; today it’s about one-fourth. That goal once was considered wildly optimistic. But solar panels have become much more efficient and less expensive. So solar power is now often the same price or cheaper than most other types of electricity, and production has soared so much that the target now looks laughably easy to achieve.
At the same time, however, state regulators — who act independently of the Legislature — until recently have continued to greenlight utility company proposals to build more natural gas power plants.
These conflicting energy agendas have frustrated state Senate Leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), who opposes more fossil fuel plants. He has introduced legislation that would require the state to meet its goal of 50% of its electricity from renewable sources five years earlier, by 2025. Even more ambitiously, he recently proposed legislation to require 100% of the state’s power to come from renewable energy sources by 2045.
“I want to make sure we don’t have two different pathways,” de Leon said. Expanding clean energy production and also building natural gas plants, he added, is “a bad investment.”
Environmental groups are even more critical. They contend that building more fossil fuel plants at the same time that solar production is being curtailed shows that utilities — with the support of regulators — are putting higher profits ahead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“California and others have just been getting it wrong,” said Leia Guccione, an expert in renewable energy at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, a clean power advocate. “The way [utilities] earn revenue is building stuff. When they see a need, they are perversely [incentivized] to come up with a solution like a gas plant.”
California and others have just been getting it wrong.
— Leia Guccione, renewable energy expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute
Regulators and utility officials dispute this view. They assert that the transition from fossil fuel power to renewable energy is complicated and that overlap is unavoidable.
They note that electricity demand fluctuates — it is higher in summer in California, because of air conditioning, and lower in the winter — so some production capacity inevitably will be underused in the winter. Moreover, the solar power supply fluctuates as well. It peaks at midday, when the sunlight is strongest. Even then it isn’t totally reliable.
Because no one can be sure when clouds might block sunshine during the day, fossil fuel electricity is needed to fill the gaps. Utility officials note that solar production is often cut back first because starting and stopping natural gas plants is costlier and more difficult than shutting down solar panels.
In the Mojave Desert at the California/Nevada border, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System uses 347,000 garage-door-sized mirrors to heat water that powers steam generators. This solar thermal plant — one of the clean energy facilities that helps produce 10% of the state’s electricity. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Eventually, unnecessary redundancy of electricity from renewables and fossil fuel will disappear, regulators, utilities and operators of the electric grid say.
“The gas-fired generation overall will show decline,” said Neil Millar, executive director of infrastructure at CAISO, the California Independent System Operator, which runs the electric grid and shares responsibility for preventing blackouts and brownouts. “Right now, as the new generation is coming online and the older generation hasn’t left yet, there is a bit of overlap.”
Utility critics acknowledge these complexities. But they counter that utilities and regulators have been slow to grasp how rapidly technology is transforming the business. A building slowdown is long overdue, they argue.
Despite a growing glut of power, however, authorities only recently agreed to put on hold proposals for some of the new natural gas power plants that utilities want to build to reconsider whether they are needed.
A key question in the debate is when California will be able to rely on renewable power for most or all of its needs and safely phase out fossil fuel plants, which regulators are studying.
The answer depends in large part on how fast battery storage improves, so it is cheaper and can store power closer to customers for use when the sun isn’t shining. Solar proponents say the technology is advancing rapidly, making reliance on renewables possible far sooner than previously predicted, perhaps two decades or even less from now — which means little need for new power plants with a life span of 30 to 40 years.
Calibrating this correctly is crucial to controlling electricity costs.
“It’s not the renewables that’s the problem. It’s the state’s renewable policy that’s the problem,” said Gary Ackerman, president of the Western Power Trading Forum, an association of independent power producers. “We’re curtailing renewable energy in the summertime months. In the spring, we have to give people money to take it off our hands.”
Not long ago, solar was barely a rounding error for California’s energy producers.
In 2010, power plants in the state generated just over 15% of their electricity production from renewable sources. But that was mostly wind and geothermal power, with only a scant 0.5% from solar. Now that overall amount has grown to 27%, with solar power accounting for 10%, or most of the increase. The solar figure doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of rooftop solar systems that produce an additional 4 percentage points, a share that is ever growing.
Behind the rapid expansion of solar power: its plummeting price, which makes it highly competitive with other electricity sources. In part that stems from subsidies, but much of the decline comes from the sharp drop in the cost of making solar panels and their increased efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity.
The average cost of solar power for residential, commercial and utility-scale projects declined 73% between 2010 and 2016. Solar electricity now costs 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour — the amount needed to light a 100-watt bulb for 10 hours — to produce, or about the same as electricity produced by a natural gas plant and half the cost of a nuclear facility, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Fly over the Carrizo Plain in California’s Central Valley near San Luis Obispo and you’ll see that what was once barren land is now a sprawling solar farm, with panels covering more than seven square miles — one of the world’s largest clean-energy projects. When the sun shines over the Topaz Solar Farm, the shimmering panels produce enough electricity to power all of the residential homes in a city the size of Long Beach, population 475,000.
Other large-scale solar operations blanket swaths of the Mojave Desert, which has increasingly become a sun-soaking energy hub. The Beacon solar project covers nearly two square miles and the Ivanpah plant covers about five and a half square miles.
The state’s three big shareholder-owned utilities now count themselves among the biggest solar power producers. Southern California Edison produces or buys more than 7% of its electricity from solar generators, Pacific Gas & Electric 13% and San Diego Gas & Electric 22%.
Similarly, fly over any sizable city and you’ll see warehouses, businesses and parking lots with rooftop solar installations, and many homes as well.
With a glut of solar power at times, CAISO has two main options to avoid a system overload: order some solar and wind farms to temporarily halt operations or divert the excess power to other states.
That’s because too much electricity can overload the transmission system and result in power outages, just as too little can. Complicating matters is that even when CAISO requires large-scale solar plants to shut off panels, it can’t control solar rooftop installations that are churning out electricity.
CAISO is being forced to juggle this surplus more and more.
In 2015, solar and wind production were curtailed about 15% of the time on average during a 24-hour period. That rose to 21% in 2016 and 31% in the first few months of this year. The surge in solar production accounts for most of this, though heavy rainfall has increased hydroelectric power production in the state this year, adding to the surplus of renewables.
Even when solar production is curtailed, the state can produce more than it uses, because it is difficult to calibrate supply and demand precisely. As more homeowners install rooftop solar, for example, their panels can send more electricity to the grid than anticipated on some days, while the state’s overall power usage might fall below what was expected.
This means that CAISO increasingly has excess solar and wind power it can send to Arizona, Nevada and other states.
When those states need more electricity than they are producing, they pay California for the power. But California has excess power on a growing number of days when neighboring states don’t need it, so California has to pay them to take it. CAISO calls that “negative pricing.”
Why does California have to pay rather than simply give the power away free?
When there isn’t demand for all the power the state is producing, CAISO needs to quickly sell the excess to avoid overloading the electricity grid, which can cause blackouts. Basic economics kick in. Oversupply causes prices to fall, even below zero. That’s because Arizona has to curtail its own sources of electricity to take California’s power when it doesn’t really need it, which can cost money. So Arizona will use power from California at times like this only if it has an economic incentive — which means being paid.
In the first two months of this year, CAISO paid to send excess power to other states seven times more often than same period in 2014. “Negative pricing” happened in an average of 18% of all sales, versus about 2.5% in the same period in 2014.
Most “negative pricing” typically has occurred for relatively short periods at midday, when solar production is highest.
But what happened in March shows how the growing supply of solar power could have a much greater impact in the future. The periods of “negative pricing” lasted longer than in the past — often for six hours at a time, and once for eight hours, according to a CAISO report.
The excess power problem will ease somewhat in the summer, when electricity usage is about 50% higher in California than in the winter.
But CAISO concedes that curtailments and “negative pricing” is likely to happen even more often in the future as solar power production continues to grow, unless action is taken to better manage the excess electricity.
Arizona’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of California’s largesse because it is next door and the power can easily be sent there on transmission lines.
On days that Arizona is paid to take California’s excess solar power, Arizona Public Service says it has cut its own solar generation rather than fossil fuel power. So California’s excess solar isn’t reducing greenhouse gases when that happens.
CAISO says it does not calculate how much it has paid others so far this year to take excess electricity. But its recent oversupply report indicated that it frequently paid buyers as much as $25 per megawatt-hour to get them to take excess power, according to the Energy Information Administration.
That’s a good deal for Arizona, which uses what it is paid by California to reduce its own customers’ electricity bills. Utility buyers typically pay an average of $14 to $45 per megawatt-hour for electricity when there isn’t a surplus from high solar power production.
With solar power surging so much that it is sometimes curtailed, does California need to spend $6 billion to $8 billion to build or refurbish eight natural gas power plants that have received preliminary approval from regulators, especially as legislative leaders want to accelerate the move away from fossil fuel energy?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
Utilities have repeatedly said yes. State regulators have agreed until now, approving almost all proposals for new power plants. But this month, citing the growing electricity surplus, regulators announced plans to put on hold the earlier approvals of four of the eight plants to determine if they really are needed.
Big utilities continue to push for all of the plants, maintaining that building natural gas plants doesn’t conflict with expanding solar power. They say both paths are necessary to ensure that California has reliable sources of power — wherever and whenever it is needed.
The biggest industrial solar power plants, they note, produce electricity in the desert, in some cases hundreds of miles from population centers where most power is used.
At times of peak demand, transmission lines can get congested, like Los Angeles highways. That’s why CAISO, utilities and regulators argue that new natural gas plants are needed closer to big cities. In addition, they say, the state needs ample electricity sources when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing enough.
Utility critics agree that some redundancy is needed to guarantee reliability, but they contend that the state already has more than enough.
California has so much surplus electricity that existing power plants run, on average, at slightly less than one-third of capacity. And some plants are being closed decades earlier than planned.
As for congestion, critics note that the state already is crisscrossed with an extensive network of transmission lines. Building more plants and transmission lines wouldn’t make the power system much more reliable, but would mean higher profits for utilities, critics say.
That is what the debate is about, said Jaleh Firooz, a power industry consultant who previously worked as an engineer for San Diego Gas & Electric for 24 years and helped in the formation of CAISO.
“They have the lopsided incentive of building more,” she said.
The reason: Once state regulators approve new plants or transmission lines, the cost is now built into the amount that the utility can charge electricity users — no matter how much or how little it is used.
Given that technology is rapidly tilting the competitive advantage toward solar power, there are less expensive and cleaner ways to make the transition toward renewable energy, she said.
To buttress her argument, Firooz pointed to a battle in recent years over a natural gas plant in Redondo Beach.
Independent power producer AES Southland in 2012 proposed replacing an aging facility there with a new one. The estimated cost: $250 million to $275 million, an amount that customers would pay off with higher electricity bills.
CAISO and Southern California Edison, which was going to buy power from the new plant, supported it as necessary to protect against potential power interruptions. Though solar and wind power production was increasing, they said those sources couldn’t be counted on because their production is variable, not constant.
The California Public Utilities Commission approved the project, agreeing that it was needed to meet the long-term electricity needs in the L.A. area.
But the California Coastal Conservancy, a conservation group opposed to the plant, commissioned an analysis by Firooz to determine how vital it was. Her conclusion: not at all.
Firooz calculated that the L.A. region already had excess power production capacity — even without the new plant — at least through 2020.
Along with the cushion, her report found, a combination of improved energy efficiency, local solar production, storage and other planning strategies would be more than sufficient to handle the area’s power needs even as the population grew.
She questioned utility arguments.
“In their assumptions, the amount of capacity they give to the solar is way, way undercut because they have to say, ‘What if it’s cloudy? What if the wind is not blowing?’ ” Firooz explained. “That’s how the game is played. You build these scenarios so that it basically justifies what you want.”
In their assumptions, the amount of capacity they give to the solar is way, way undercut because they have to say, ‘What if it’s cloudy?’
— Jaleh Firooz, power-industry consultant
Undeterred, AES Southland pressed forward with its proposal. In 2013, Firooz updated her analysis at the request of the city of Redondo Beach, which was skeptical that a new plant was needed. Her findings remained the same.
Nonetheless, the state Public Utilities Commission approved the project in March 2014 on the grounds that it was needed. But the California Energy Commission, another regulatory agency whose approval for new plants is required along with the PUC’s, sided with the critics. In November 2015 it suspended the project, effectively killing it.
Asked about the plant, AES said it followed the appropriate processes in seeking approval. It declined to say whether it still thinks that a new plant is needed.
The existing facility is expected to close in 2020.
A March 2017 state report showed why critics are confident that the area will be fine without a new plant: The need for power from Redondo Beach’s existing four natural gas units has been so low, the state found, that the units have operated at less than 5% of their capacity during the last four years.
Credits: Times data editor Ben Welsh and staff writer Ryan Menezes contributed to this report. Illustrations by Eben McCue. Graphics by Priya Krishnakumar and Thomas Suh Lauder. Produced by Sean Greene
Sage grouse are best-known for their mating rituals. Male sage grouse fan their spiked head feathers, hoist their wings and puff out their chests to try to catch the eye of females.
Conservation groups say cattle-grazing, oil-and-gas drilling and other development, and drought are erasing habitat for the sage grouse.
Their numbers have fallen by half in California over the last five years, with just about 2,100 sage grouse believed to survive in the state, the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group says.
A record-breaking heat wave that has been roasting California for days has claimed the lives of two seniors in San Jose, public health officials said Wednesday.
A 72-year-old man and an 87-year-old woman died from heat-related illnesses Monday, according to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Days of punishing heat probably aggravated any existing illnesses they may have had and contributed to their deaths, said Joy Alexiou, a department spokeswoman.
“It’s a cumulative effect of days on end of high heat,” she said.
Dr. Michelle Jorden, chief medical examiner for Santa Clara County, said hyperthermia and heat stress occurs when a person’s heat-regulation system can’t handle hot temperatures.
“It is tragic when someone dies of hyperthermia since in most every case it could have been prevented,” she said in a statement.
Like most of California, San Jose has been under a heat advisory for several days due to a dry, high-pressure system centered over the Southwest.
Across the Sacramento Valley and inland communities, temperatures soared past 100 degrees and hit a record-breaking 113 degrees in Redding. The previous high for Redding was 104 degrees, set in 1988.
In Southern California on Tuesday, temperatures in the low desert communities were “among the highest ever recorded,” the weather service said. Death Valley hit 127 — seven degrees shy of the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet.
An all-time record high for San Diego County was set Tuesday in Ocotillo Wells, when the mercury hit 124 degrees.
Will Pi, a meteorologist for the weather service, said temperatures will increase three to five degrees Thursday throughout the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, health officials urged Californians to drink plenty of water, take cool baths or showers and stay indoors.
“Extreme heat such as this is not just an inconvenience, it can be dangerous and even deadly,” said Santa Clara County Executive Dr. Jeffrey Smith. “But we can protect ourselves, our families and our neighbors if we take steps to remain cool and hydrated.”
A punishing heat wave that brought record temperatures to California this week may be easing, but the risk of wildfire was expected to grow Thursday as a result of continued warmth, increased winds and lush ground cover, according to the National Weather Service.
On Wednesday, the weather service issued a red flag warning for parts of Northern California through Thursday afternoon. The warning includes the northern Sacramento Valley, where triple-digit heat, strong winds and low relative humidity have created a potent mix for fire.
In Southern California, conditions have yet to meet the threshold for a red flag warning, but the weather service did say the region should prepare for the increased risk of fire.
“While winds have been relatively light so far this week, onshore flow is expected to strengthen on Thursday,” read a statement from the Oxnard office of the NWS. “With this expected wind increase, continuing hot and dry conditions, and drying fuels/vegetation, the risk of extreme fire behavior will be on the rise.”
Officials said a fire weather watch will be in place through Thursday for the Antelope Valley and interior mountains – where the benefits of a coastal breeze are muted.
On Wednesday, state fire officials warned that heavy rains over the winter and spring did not remove the risk of summer wildfires.
“We are asking that residents not be lulled into a false sense of security on the heels of an exceptionally wet winter,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in a statement Wednesday. “The abundant dead grass will only serve as a fuse to the heavier vegetation still suffering lasting effects of five years of extreme drought.”
In the Sacramento Valley, temperatures could reach as high as 112 degrees through Saturday, while wind gusts could hit 30 mph in the foothills. The foothills are also an area where heavy rains have enriched layers of now-drying brush and vegetation — ready fuel for flames.
The situation is just as dire to the south. In the San Joaquin Valley, a 93-year-old heat record at Fresno Yosemite International Airport was broken Tuesday when the thermometer hit 110.
Los Padres National Forest issued a burn restriction the same day for open fires, smoking and operating engines in open vegetation. Last year, the Soberanes fire tore through 206 square miles of chaparral, grass and timber on its way to destroying 57 homes and killing one person. Burn restrictions were also issued this week for Lassen, Modoc and Plumas counties, Calfire said.
In Southern California, firefighters entered their third day of work against a growing blaze in the San Bernardino Mountains, where the Holcomb fire has spread across 1,200 acres and was 10% contained Wednesday. The fire prompted a partial closure of Highway 18 near Big Bear Lake and briefly forced some residents near Baldwin Lake to evacuate.
“Higher temperatures and lower humidities are making it a big challenge because the fuels are drying out so fast,” said Lyn Sieliet, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service. “We had a really wet winter but it helped all the grasses grow and it’s created all these fine flashy fuels that go up really fast and spread really quickly.”
The Holcomb fire started Monday afternoon but its cause has not been determined. Sieliet said firefighters have no illusions about what the winter did for the fire season.
Despite a green landscape, the drought and a devastating Sierra Nevada bark beetle infestation that’s killed more than 100 million trees means the threat of a wildfire hasn’t really diminished, she said.
“It’ll help the smaller bushes and shrubs … but when the trees are already suffering then it definitely increases problems,” she said.
California’s website for business records and requests just got a lot simpler.
As of Wednesday, businesses no longer have to submit physical LLC Statements of Information, as the records may now be submitted via the California secretary of state’s website. An LLC Statement of Information includes records such as the company’s name, location and type of business, as well as the addresses of chief executives and managers.
“We’re streamlining the process so that entrepreneurs can focus less on red tape and more on growing their business,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
Padilla’s office said it processes about 375,000 of the forms a year.
Sam Mahood, Padilla’s press secretary, said that business owners often accidentally miss a step with paper records, and the office rejects the form and makes the business resubmit. With the process going online, Mahood said the step-by-step directions should help users avoid the pitfalls of manually filling out forms.
“It’s an ongoing time-saving measure, since business owners have to file new Statements of Information every two years,” Mahood said.
The penalty for a business failing to file the statements by the deadline is $250, so the digitization should help business owners avoid the costly penalty. Those who want to submit the forms on paper can still do so.
To form an LLC for the first time, Articles of Organization must still be filed in person or by mail, but Padilla hopes to digitize that process by December.
The change in policy comes with the office’s Wednesday launch of Bizfile California, a one-stop online portal for users to submit, search and access business filings.
Since December, Padilla’s office has posted more than 10 million free, downloadable records related to corporations, companies and partnerships. These include files on Statements of Information, registrations, amendments and terminations for businesses in California.
Previously, these documents cost $1 for the first page and 50 cents for every additional page, and usually took five business days to process.
Forecasters said the reading was two degrees above the previous high of 122, which was recorded in Borrego Springs on June 20, 2016. That reading had tied the previous record high for the county, a figure also set in Borrego Springs.
“The desert has two seasons — hot and hotter,” said Mark Moede, a weather service forecaster. “But today, it was hottest.”
Misery in Palm Springs area
Palm Springs tied a record high of 122 degrees and Thermal broke the record for the day at 122 degrees.
Grape pickers in the Coachella Valley started before dawn, but by 9 a.m. the temperature had topped 100 degrees.
Francis Resendiz, 36, wore a hat and handkerchiefs over her neck and face. She had a duffel bag of frozen electrolyte drinks that would melt throughout her shift.
“Tomen agua,” shouted a forewoman. Drink water.
Resendiz found some shade under the canopies of grape vines, but the leaves trapped humidity.
“It starts to feel like you’re suffocating,” she said.
The devil in Death Valley
Several daily records also fell in Northern California.
Then there was Death Valley, which hit 127.
At 7 a.m. in Death Valley, customers, short-order cooks and waitresses were already sweating inside the Wrangler Restaurant in Furnace Creek, where the air-conditioning system had broken down. With the heat from the ovens adding to the misery, they tried to cool down by wrapping wet towels around their necks and guzzling ice water. But a manager had to pull the plug on this mess and close.
“We can’t put customers through this — it’s just too hot,” John Kukreja said.
Facing a full week of temperatures above 120 degrees, officials at the national park’s headquarters — 190 feet below sea level — are bracing for heat-related illness and injuries.
Earlier this month, a woman was transported to the hospital with third-degree burns on her feet.
“She’d lost her sandals in Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and walked about a half-mile on the hot sand,” Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for the park, said in a statement.
Ground temperatures exceeding 200 degrees have been measured in Death Valley. “To put that in perspective,” Wines said, “160 degrees is sufficient to cook meat.”
Preparing for the heat
The intense heat is part of a system commonly referred to as the Four Corners High, a high-pressure system that settles over the desert Southwest near the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet.
In anticipation of the heat, Los Angeles County posted a list of cooling centers online, while operators of California’s electrical grid issued their first flex alert of the year on Tuesday.
The California Independent System Operator urged energy consumers to scale back power consumption over the next two days or risk outages.