Temporary Setback for Western Grid Integration

In an effort that lasted until the final day of its 2018 session, the California Legislature couldn’t quite get to Yes on Assembly Bill 813, the bill authorizing a transition to a fully integrated western power grid—which will cut carbon pollution, reduce Californians' utility bills by up to $1.5 billion annually, and boost renewable energy production to meet the state's climate and clean energy goals. 

After winning two key bipartisan committee votes, the bill stalled in its final committee and did not come up for a vote before the midnight deadline on the final day of the session.

Grid regionalization has been discussed by the legislature since 2015 and the need for fully integrating the western grid grows more obvious every day. If California doesn’t lead the inevitable transition, others will. California’s wind and solar generation are growing faster than our inefficiently managed electric grid can put them to use. We’re literally throwing away pollution-free electricity during certain periods, and the problem will only get worse.

Fully integrating the western grid will make it easier to sell to our neighbors instead, which, along with other efficiencies, will save Californians up to $1.5 billion annually on their utility bills beginning in 2030. That’s why NRDC and many others will keep pushing for changes to the western grid to help California meet its climate and clean energy goals, while minimizing electricity costs and improving reliability.

It also promises the same benefits to states currently served by the fragmented western grid, and would reduce climate pollution throughout the region. 

Widespread support for fully integrating the western grid has ranged from consumer and business groups to renewable energy companies to a Nobel Prize winner and other highly esteemed academics and electricity experts. AB 813 was the culmination of more than three years of discussion about ending the grid’s balkanization.

Western Grid Fragmentation

One-fourth of the nation’s electricity flows through the Western grid, a web of power lines that physically connect 14 western states, two Canadian provinces, and Northern Mexico. As this marvel of engineering evolved over the past century, transmission lines linked up but management became fragmented. Today, 38 separate bodies manage day-to-day grid operations. It’s a system that is rife with inefficiency, including an inability to make full use of California’s growing inventory of wind and solar power. And each time the electrons flow through one of those 38 balancing authorities, another transmission charge is added. The most comprehensive recent study puts the unnecessary costs to California consumers from this balkanized system at more than $1 billion annually.

The Solution

The obvious candidate to serve as the operator of a western grid to oversee the movement of electricity across the region is the largest of the current operators, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). But first it must shift from a governor-appointed board to a fully independent board of a regional institution, which all western utilities and generators could join.

The board would be independent and comprised of technical experts, not political appointees, as is the case for the six other regional transmission operators in the country. AB 813 called for the change in “governance” to begin after Jan. 1, 2021.

January 2019 marks the next opportunity for the California Legislature to open the door for the critical transition to a fully integrated western grid.  

About the Authors

Ralph Cavanagh

Energy Co-Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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