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California Lawmakers Consider Jointly Managing Electric Grid With Other States

A key priority of Gov. Jerry Brown before he leaves office is a proposal to integrate California’s power grid with surrounding states — and it's regaining momentum at the Capitol after stalling last year.

Brown says California must plan its energy usage jointly with neighbors for the state to hit its long-term climate change goals.

“Renewable energy is not going to really make sense beyond a certain 30, 40 percent without a regional grid,” Brown said at a New York Times clean technology conference last November, a few months after legislation stalled. “So, I think there’s a few obstacles, which I don’t need to bore you with. There’s just that kind of vulgar politics which I am so attracted to.”

A regional grid could allow California to export excess solar energy during the day and import, say, Wyoming wind to fill the void when the sun sets.

The “vulgar politics” include assuring unions, utilities, solar energy providers, and lawmakers that their interests will be protected in any agreement where California would give up its singular authority to plan power usage — currently handled by the state-appointed Independent System Operator.

Some lawmakers and environmental groups worry a regional grid operator could allow other states or the federal government to intervene in California’s power supply, for instance, pushing the state toward more coal usage.

Mark Rothleder of the ISO says the economics of solar energy will prevent that because it burns no fuel.

“They have a higher marginal cost — they have a fuel cost,” Rothleder told lawmakers. “We can beat that.”

At the hearing, Matthew Freedman of utility watchdog TURN aired perhaps a bigger concern for lawmakers.

“All of you and regulators at our state agencies would be relegated to simply providing input along with other government and industry stakeholders from across the West,” Freeman said. “In effect, your views would become only marginally relevant.”

The current bill under discussion says California would only participate in a shared grid as long as it saves the state money and protects its clean energy goals.

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