Why We Need an Integrated Western Power Grid

The western power grid is an engineering marvel linking 15 states, two Canadian provinces and parts of Mexico. One-fourth of the nation’s electricity generation moves through it to provide service to tens of millions of people and businesses. But it also suffers under a wholly unnecessary fragmentation that threatens its vital mission. That’s why a campaign with diverse support launched today to help solve the problem.

Threatened federal action to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan makes the case for western grid integration even stronger; it’s an effective way to reinforce all the California and west-wide momentum toward clean energy progress and carbon pollution reduction, and to reestablish the climate policy leadership exemplified by the Clean Power Plan itself.

NRDC and nine other groups are part of this effort, seeking to integrate the western grid and ensure safe, reliable, and affordable electricity service to Californians and the rest of the West. We signed a joint letter urging the California legislature to act.

Here’s the problem we’re all working on together: As the western grid evolved over the past century, its management fragmented even as its transmission lines linked up. No less than 38  “balancing authorities” emerged to assert control over different parts of the system, each responsible within its geographic footprint for adjusting electricity generation, 24/7, to meet constantly changing local electricity demand. Over the last two decades, the number of balancing authorities has continued to grow, despite strengthening evidence that we have far too many.

The largest of these authorities, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), has only about one-fourth of the West’s total electricity generation and one-fourth of the electricity use within its territory; every other part of the system is smaller (in many cases far smaller) on both counts. One of my friends likes to say that calling the western grid balkanized is unfair to Macedonia. The most comprehensive recent study puts the unnecessary costs to California consumers from that balkanization at more than a billion dollars annually.

Grid fragmentation is costly in three major ways: It means higher costs to utility customers, more pollution, and lower reliability, for reasons that Stanford Professor and grid expert Jim Sweeney lays out in a recent op ed. As one of the historians of California’s epic 2000-2001 electricity crisis, Sweeney points out also that the resulting inefficiencies and lack of transparency contributed then to an epidemic of price-gouging and service interruptions, and could do so again.

Much more recently, a warning light began blinking on our transmission system’s dashboard when the California ISO warned of an imminent need to start turning off much of our solar generation during some hours over the days and months ahead, because inadequate access to buyers elsewhere in the West is leaving California with more clean electricity than it can productively use. In fact, as I wrote last week, up to 80 percent of our state’s large-scale solar is threatened with periodic shutdowns.

What is to be done? The Secure California’s Energy Future campaign urges California’s governor and legislative leadership to unite on a plan for inviting all western utilities and generators to join a truly regional system operator. This means transitioning the California ISO from a board appointed by our state’s governor to a regional institution with independent governance, a step that only the California legislature can take because the board’s composition is fixed in state law.

Today’s joint letter transmits that request on behalf of ten institutions representing millions of Californians and hundreds of businesses. A new campaign website (securecaenergyfuture.org) will track progress and provide additional information.

NRDC is proud to be part of this campaign, which offers legislators a rare opportunity to reduce utility bills, cut pollution and increase electric service reliability without spending a dime of public money. It’s not too much to hope that all involved can find a way to Yes for the sake of California families and businesses. 

About the Authors

Ralph Cavanagh

Codirector, Energy program

Join Us