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MacKenzie Elmer's biweekly environmental news roundup (Mondays)
Energy experts say the recent power blackouts were unnecessary, a new utility watchdog lodged complaints over SDG&E’s wildfire mitigation plans and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.
Yet in California, and most of the country for that matter, there’s no requirement to disclose anything about sea level rise or coastal flooding between buyer and seller during a real estate transaction.
This is important because the city of San Diego is hoping to lease out a big chunk of property in the Midway District, which includes the Pechanga Arena. But the city’s own sea level rise vulnerability assessment shows the property will be underwater sometime after 2050 under current annual storm conditions. (Storms, for that matter, are expected to become more frequent and intense as the years pass due to human-caused climate change.)
“The most striking thing is how much certainty we do have about sea level rise,” said Rachel Ehlers, a fiscal and policy specialist at the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. She authored a few recent reports on the threat it poses to California.
Her December report suggested state lawmakers require some kind of coastal flooding disclosure to spread public awareness about sea level rise and help Californians make informed decisions about the risks of purchasing coastal properties.
A bill to do just that has already hit the statehouse chambers in Hawaii. And the National Association of Realtors is closely tracking flood disclosures state by state.
Ehlers said coastal flooding disclosures could mean buyers start demanding lower prices based on future risk, which sends a signal through the market to insurers and lenders.
“Both are not going to wait forever on this,” Ehlers said. “If a state doesn’t have disclosure laws, that is not going to indefinitely prevent banks and insurance companies from accurately reflecting the risks (of sea level rise) in their decisions.”
It could mean coastal properties become too risky to insure at all, sending property values plummeting. (California regulators already had to ban insurers from dropping home policies in wildfire-prone zones.) That means less property taxes for the local government, and less money to build things to protect property from sea level rise in the first place.
Instead of waiting for the hammer to fall, policymakers could enact coastal flooding disclosures now.
“Our responsibility is to our citizens, to help inform their decisions intentionally based on the best science we have rather than letting the market roll out as it rolls out,” Ehlers said.
San Diego hasn’t yet released its plan, called Climate Resilient SD, but it’s supposed to lay out the city’s strategy for adapting to extreme climate change.
So it’s unclear how the Pechanga Arena’s location in a sea level rise flood zone will affect the price of the property or who will be on the hook to pay for infrastructure that could protect anticipated development from rising water. But for now, it’s a reminder that nothing’s free when the climate changes.
As California entered into a heat wave this month, people flipped on their air conditioners, which use a ton of energy. In response, the state’s electric grid manager, a private non-profit known as CAISO, said the system was overtaxed and it ordered utilities to cut power to customers, as you may have noticed, for the first time since the 2001 energy crisis.
But energy experts that keep close tabs on CAISO’s data said the grid had plenty of back up power available and that blackouts weren’t necessary.
CAISO, however, blamed the California Public Utilities Commission (which regulates power companies like San Diego Gas and Electric) for failing to require power companies line up sufficient supplies.
Energy demand tends to spike at night, when people are cooking dinner and cooling off at bedtime. But after the sun goes down, electricity sourced from the state’s small but growing array of rooftop solar panels and farms drops to zero.
Similar blackouts many years ago lead the state to transition away from fossil fuels like natural gas to renewable energy. The same conversation is taking place now, just as the state’s water resources board prepares to debate extending the life of a few more natural gas peaker plants during a September 1 meeting.
During an emergency public meeting on Aug. 17, Mary Leslie, a CAISO board member, said the nonprofit would be “moving forward with a low carbon grid … and we’re not going back.”
CAISO’s vice president of market policy and performance, Mark Rothleder, suggested that grid operators were hoping the Water Board won’t retire those peaker plants just yet.
“As a result of the identified shortfalls of (power) capacity … there are decisions that have to be made about extending those so we can transition to new resources,” Rothleder said.
This brings us back to the original issue: Just how much power capacity does the state grid actually have?
It comes down to data, its quality and who has access to it.
Dave Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board, told me that when the board was deliberating the retirement of a natural gas peaker plant in South Bay about a decade ago, they had trouble with CAISO’s data.
Environmental advocates didn’t want the board to extend the plant’s permits, but CAISO argued it needed the back-up power to meet demand. The board got conflicting data from CAISO.
“We were often struggling to try and understand what it meant,” Gibson said.
Dave Marcus, an energy consultant and former adviser at the California Energy Commission, also told me there are “numerous data quality issues with CAISO data.”
The grid’s published data comes with a disclaimer that it’s not official. And, according to Marcus, who watches this stuff closely, the data is updated every five to 10 minutes and isn’t archived, so you have to really be paying attention to pull a quality set of data.
CAISO’s CEO Steve Berberich said during a media call on Aug. 19 that the grid operator would soon be sitting down with the CPUC to make sure “we’re all coming up with the same capacity number.”
As California’s erupt once again, this time near San Francisco, the state’s utility watchdog worries San Diego Gas and Electric’s tree-clearing plan lacks credible science and could actually make wildfires worse.
SDG&E’s plan is to clear trees and brush around power lines at a radius of 25 feet. But the Public Advocate’s Office, a newly-formed safety branch within the CPUC, says that could make way for tall brush to take the place of trees, creating a bunch of low-lying kindling for sparks.
All the utilities now have to submit wildfire mitigation plans to the state and get a safety certificate. That guarantees utilities access to a $20 billion-plus pot of funding, split by ratepayers and shareholders, to help cover wildfire damage claims.
But the advocate’s office says SDG&E’s lack of scientific justification behind their overbroad tree trimming plan could put that certificate in jeopardy. In response, SDG&E pointed to its own data showing that when it clears trees beyond the state minimum, its equipment had fewer contact with vegetation and a drop in fires.