with Alexandra Ellerbeck

A crushing heat wave that pushed California's electric grid to the brink is prompting President Trump to renew his attacks on the nation's most populous state: He and other conservatives are pointing fingers at its shift away from fossil fuels as a reason behind the outages.

“There were rolling blackouts because the radical Democrats have mandated impossible restrictions on energy production,” Trump said Thursday evening in a speech in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In reality, reliance on intermittent renewable energy is just one piece of the puzzle. But the president's criticism could ignite a debate on the presidential campaign trail as Trump seeks to put Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the defensive for incorporating some of California's climate policies into his nationwide clean energy plan. 

At a rally in Old Forge, Pa., on Aug. 20, President Trump claimed Californians "don't listen" when he tells them to "clean your floors" to prevent wildfires. (The Washington Post)

It's been a drumbeat of criticism all week: In a pair of tweets Tuesday, Trump pointed to California and accused Democrats of being “unable to keep up with energy demand” because of policies put in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He re-upped that line of attack in the gas-rich state of Pennsylvania ahead of the last night of the Democratic National Convention. “Our new forms of alternative energy just aren't powerful enough to power these massive plants,” he said.

Part of Biden's pitch for the presidency is a $2 trillion clean energy plan.

That would require utilities to get all of their power emissions-free sources within 15 years.

The proposal is inspired in part by California's own clean energy policies, which culminated in a 2018 law requiring power providers to switch to wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower and make the state's electric grid 100 percent carbon free by 2045. 

And Biden embraced one of the state's highest-profile politicians, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, as his running mate. 

The Biden campaign pushed back against Trump for seeking making political hay out of California's woes. 

“Californians are wrestling with a devastating storm of crises from the destructive wildfires to a historic heatwave to the raging pandemic,” spokesman Matt Hill said in a statement. “They deserve and need presidential leadership, not a political tweetstorm.”

Trump also blamed California's "massive fires," which have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres this summer, on state leaders management, even though much of its forests are controlled by the federal government. 

"Maybe we're just going to have to make them pay for it, because they don't listen to us," Trump said.

Trump's backlash comes against a state that has been the epicenter of legal opposition to his administration's rollbacks of rules meant to tackle climate change. California has sued the federal government dozens of time since Trump took office over environmental policy. 

California's grid operator ordered its first rolling outages in nearly two decades amid a major heat wave. 

Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power last Friday and Saturday as triple-digit temperatures taxed the entire electricity grid in western states. The hot, high-pressure system, which set records in Death Valley and fueled wildfires elsewhere in California, not only caused people to crank up their air conditioning and draw more energy, but also stifled breezes that would have otherwise spun wind turbines. 

So the California Independent System Operator, which manages power for four-fifths of the state, ordered utilities to conduct rotating outages as solar generation fell off and people's lights were still on. 

For the rest of the week, both the grid operator and utilities were reduced to pleading with customers to ratchet back their energy use to keep the system from crashing. “We have a perfect storm going on here,” Stephen Berberich, CAISO's president, told reporters Monday. 

California's renewable mix is just one factor behind the blackouts.

On especially sunny days, California produces so much solar power that it sends it to other states. California’s challenge this month was its need to import power from its neighbors while they faced their own sweltering temperatures and high energy demands.

There are now less coal and nuclear generation in western states to provide baseload power, and few gas-fired power plants are around too to be turned on quickly during periods of high demand. Since 2006, California has retired about 7,000 megawatts of gas generation and 2,000 megawatts of nuclear power, according to Severin Borenstein, an energy professor at the University of California at Berkeley. 

But gas-fired generation was also diminished due to hot weather, according to CAISO. And California can eventually deal with the fact that solar panels and wind turbines don't generate power when weather conditions aren't right by building out its ability to store energy in massive batteries.

“In this case, renewables are really not a factor,” said Berberich, the grid operator's president. “It's simply a matter of raw capacity.”

Expect the political debate to pick up as conservatives echo Trump's arguments against expanding solar and wind energy. 

In a piece titled “California’s Green Blackouts,” the Wall Street Journal's editorial board wrote that the “power outages will get worse and more frequent as the state becomes more reliant on renewables.” 

And in a blog post as part of its “Count on Coal” campaign, the National Mining Association, a mining industry trade group, said the difficulty of managing "the intermittency of renewable sources of power is the elephant in the room" in California. 

California leaders suggested climate change is too big of a crisis to back down from its clean energy goals.

In a press conference this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) blamed the outages on “extraordinary weather conditions" and demanded an investigation into what happened. But he also acknowledged the “episodic nature of the renewable portfolio” made California "vulnerable to these conditions."

He added, however, that it is still economically and ecologically important for the state to wean itself off of fossil fuels to forestall dangerous heat waves in the first place.

“We are committed to radically changing the way we produce and consume energy," Newsom said. "We are not backing off on that commitment, quite the contrary."

Still, Ralph Cavanagh, a renewable energy advocate and energy program co-director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the blackouts “a wake-up call" for California. 

He said there are a number of steps California should take to reduce stress on the system, such as making buildings more the energy efficiency and installing automated systems that shift power consumption off of peak hours.

"The tools are clear," he said. “But the deployment is insufficient.”

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Power plays

On the final day of the Democratic National Convention, Biden called climate change one of four “historic crises.”

“And now history has delivered us to one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced,” the Democratic nominee said in his acceptance speech Thursday night. “All at the same time. A perfect storm. The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the 60s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.”

His speech underscored that, after decades of inaction, climate change is a central issue for the Democrats, but nonetheless ranked among a barrage of other interrelated crises demanding the party’s attention.

Biden also hammered home his central talking point about climate change: Green energy will lead to new jobs.

“We can, and we will, deal with climate change. It's not only a crisis, it's an enormous opportunity. An opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process,” he said.

Michigan has agreed to pay $600 million to the victims of the Flint water crisis.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) announced the settlement on Thursday, which will provide money to children who were poisoned by lead-tainted tap water. In a statement, the governor said that healing “will take a long time.”

“The settlement resolves a lengthy legal battle that began under her Republican predecessor, Rick Snyder, who was among the many public officials accused of ignoring or even denying the crisis in the poor, largely minority city of 95,000,” Kayla Ruble reports for The Post. “The problems started almost immediately after Flint changed the source of its municipal water supply to save money, and they continued for nearly two years despite residents' increasing complaints and concerns." 

The problems started when Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, but officials failed to add corrosion controls and lead leached from the city’s old pipes.

“Residents started complaining of discolored and foul-smelling water and then worse — skin rashes after bathing — but their concerns were largely ignored,” Ruble writes. “Among some children tested in 2015 at a local hospital, the percentage with lead poisoning doubled after the switch in water sources. In some neighborhoods, it tripled.”

The city and state only responded, distributing bottled water, after the Environmental Protection Agency invoked its emergency powers.

Thermometer

Climate change may be making Alaska salmon smaller.

“Alaska’s highly prized salmon — a favorite of seafood lovers the world over — are getting smaller, and climate change is a suspected culprit,” Reuters reports. “Hardest hit is Alaska’s official state fish, the Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon.”

A new study led by scientists at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks found that four out of five species of wild Alaska salmon have shrunk in average fish size, based on data from 12.5 million samples collected over six decades. The study, which was published in Nature Communications, confirms anecdotal reports.

“People are walking into their smokehouses and not having to duck anymore,” Peter Westley, a co-writer of the study, told Reuters. “The fish are just smaller.“

The study found that increased competition, warming seas and increased mortality of older, larger salmon could all play a role in the decrease in size.

Oil check

The recovery in oil prices is slow and unsteady.

“Slowing oil purchases by China and a resurgence in virus cases in Europe are undermining the bounceback in energy demand, which had been eviscerated by shelter-in-place orders,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Adding to the pressure, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies have relaxed record output cuts they imposed earlier in the year to spark a rally in prices.”

Even though oil demand is recovering, huge volumes of oil are sitting in storage, probably depressing prices for the near future. OPEC leaders indicated on Wednesday that the pace of recovery was slower than anticipated.

The low oil prices have contributed to budget shortfalls in some states.

Most states have seen a sharp downturn in revenue from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but oil-producing states could take an extra hit, E&E News reports.

With U.S. oil production down 22 percent from December to May, many states are seeing tax revenues from the sector dry up.

In North Dakota, oil production is near a seven-year low, jeopardizing funding for infrastructure and other projects. In Oklahoma, the legislature had a $1.3 billion gap in funding for this fiscal year; lawmakers avoided cuts to education only by depleting the state’s reserve fund, leaving little for next year, E&E News writes.

The Department of Energy gave the green light for liquid natural gas exports in Alaska

The department issued a final authorization on Thursday for an LNG export terminal in Nikiski, Alaska. The Alaska LNG Project plans to build an 800-mile pipeline between the terminal and natural gas reserves in the state's North Slope, according to a news release from the department.

The approval would allow the facility to export to countries with which the United States does not have a free trade agreement. The project has been in the works for years and started as a partnership between the state and ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and TransCanada. Over the years, the private companies have scaled back their project, leaving state-owned Alaska Gasline Development Corp. to largely take over the endeavor.

The state is in talks with some of the companies initially involved and other investors, according to a report from KTVA.