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After California, Texas Blackouts, a Stronger Push to Renewables

After blackouts from wildfires and freezes, renewable energy advocates are pushing strongly to switch power generation away from natural gas and to better prepare for extreme weather events.

(TNS) — When the Texas power grid buckled and cut off power to millions of households during a severe winter freeze last month, Bernadette Del Chiaro saw some troubling similarities to what had played out in California six months before.

Del Chiaro, who leads a solar energy advocacy group in Sacramento, felt Texas was going through "the cold version of Aug. 15," one of two days California implemented rolling blackouts because energy supplies ran short during a widespread heat wave.

She noticed that in both grid emergencies, some politicians and other observers had blamed a familiar foe: renewable energy. In California, they said, solar panels couldn't meet demand after the sun set; in the Lone Star State, wind turbines froze.

The reality in each case was far more complicated, with energy experts insisting renewables weren't the sole cause. In fact, both states had a variety of problems beyond solar and wind power, including planning failures, structural constraints and trouble with gas-fired power plants. Still, Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, was concerned.

"There's a pattern with the legacy fossil fuel industry. They point the finger at renewables," Del Chiaro said. "Most people may buy that for a second. But once they think about it, once they hear facts to the contrary, I think it's pretty obvious to most people that the system we have today is not delivering safe, reliable and affordable energy, and that we need a different approach."

She is among a chorus of clean energy advocates who believe the power grid crises that unfolded in the nation's two largest states should be a rallying cry to embrace carbon-free electricity sources more aggressively. Advocates also see the blackouts as evidence that states must do more to prepare their grids for extreme weather events, which are becoming more common with climate change.

But advancing those goals will require persuading both policymakers and everyday Americans to see severe weather and climate change as requiring speedy and dramatic changes to long-running infrastructure problems.

"We're not preparing for these extreme weather events, and because of our unpreparedness, we're laying the groundwork for a predictable crisis by failing to lead and act with the urgency that the crisis demands," said Luis Amezcua, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club's My Generation campaign, which aims for an equitable move to 100% renewable power in California.

Amezcua acknowledges that California needs to better ensure it can reliably supply power while defending its grid against climate change. But he sees renewable energy as the solution, not the cause.

"We need to be making sure that we're building a resilient and reliable grid for a hotter and drier California — not a grid that makes California hotter and drier," he said.

Environmentalists like Amezcua insist that California can and must simultaneously achieve its dual goals of preventing more power shortages and getting 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.

They're pushing for more investments to expand the state's renewable power supplies, like fleets of batteries that can store energy for use in the evening when solar panels are offline. More ambitious projects could include wind turbines off the coast that would add clean energy to the grid while making the power supply more diverse — and potentially more resistant to erratic weather.

As calls mount to accelerate the grid's abandonment of fossil fuels, some organizers want states to prioritize lower-income communities, which often have greater exposure to pollution and less ability to endure electricity interruptions.

Such communities are of the utmost importance to Bay Area activist Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance and the East Bay Clean Power Alliance. Tovar believes state officials must pay more attention to frontline urban communities during a transition away from fossil fuels.

Her dream is that the state will bring more solar panels and batteries to low-income communities of color that may not be able to install that technology otherwise. She wants urban neighborhoods to be able to "island" themselves from the primary electric grid so they aren't as susceptible to blackouts or power shut-offs.

"I feel like we're in this generation at a crossroads," Tovar said. "Do we learn from our mistakes and change those wrongs into rights? Or are we going to continue down this destructive path of sacrificing people?"

Nationwide, policymakers likely won't act until a sufficient number view climate change as an urgent threat. In California, climate changes have become almost impossible to ignore amid recurring drought years and the state's dramatically worsening wildfire seasons. But it's a tougher task in the conservative and fossil fuel-dominant strongholds of Texas.

Del Chiaro, of the California solar association, said that for the average person, "climate change is becoming more real and more immediate" every year.

"We are seeing an increase in consumer interest, and I think it's driven in large part by people feeling the urgency of climate change," she said. At the same time, she has noticed a "perverse pushback" that can take root among policymakers who "buy into this idea that renewables are to blame."

She saw it happen in August, when critics blamed the rolling blackouts on the state's commitment to renewable energy and regulators subsequently extended the lifespan of several gas-fired power plants.She saw similar critiques play out in Texas last month, when Gov. Greg Abbott pinned his state's grid problems on issues with renewable energy, saying the crisis "shows that fossil fuel is necessary."

"That trips up the conversation, so we're delayed for months and months and months until strides are made to debunk that myth," Del Chiaro said. "Policymakers batten down the hatches and circle the wagons around the legacy industry."

Even after all the extreme fires and hurricanes the country has weathered in recent years, persuading climate skeptics to act can be a delicate task.

Michael Ranney, a UC Berkeley education and psychology professor who has studied how the public understands climate change, said an important step is to communicate the technical underpinnings of global warming. His research has shown that people are more likely to accept climate science once they understand exactly how greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat and warm the planet.

Empathy is also important to changing minds, Ranney has found. He used the example of a man who once saw him working on climate change issues on his laptop during a flight. The man confronted Ranney about a false belief that volcanoes were more to blame than carbon emissions. Ranney explained why that wasn't true, and after some discussion realized that family may have played a part in his fellow passenger's belief.

"You have to listen sensitively to what people are saying, and often it's very fear-based," Ranney said. "He didn't want to imagine a world where he'd leave behind this problem for his kids and grandkids, and so he'd rather just stick his head in the sand and not worry about it."

But no one event — not a single explanation or a single event like a massive heat wave or freak winter storm — is likely to be sufficiently persuasive by itself.

"I don't think there's a silver bullet by which you can just change somebody's mind about climate change," Ranney said. "It turns out that there's a lot of bullets that can change somebody's mind a little bit ... but unlike some things that are really hard to change people's minds about, like evolution, you can see climate change happening within a generation."

Despite criticism about regulators' actions in the short run, Amezcua, of the Sierra Club, has a more optimistic outlook for the long run. Over the next two to four years, he said, regulators seem "very interested in building out clean energy, and that's the kind of leadership we need to see."

"We have to act with some urgency, and I think the positive news is that we do have time to make a difference," he said. "Right now is really our shot to meet the moment."

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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