California Must Import One-Quarter of Its Electricity

California Must Import One-Quarter of Its Electricity
California Must Import One-Quarter of Its Electricity

California likes to portray itself as the nation’s most progressive state in terms of reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, but a casual glimpse of the map portraying the movement of electricity in the Western United States reveals what it happening. California imports one-quarter of its electricity, by far the most of any state.

At home California generates only 1 percent of its electricity from coal and none from oil. 55 percent of its power comes from natural gas, 15.5 percent from nuclear, 13.5 percent hydro, 3.1 percent wind and solar and 11.2 percent other renewables, mostly geothermal and biofuels.

But when it comes to imports, the profile changes. Almost 80 percent of imports come from coal plants in neighboring states. The Navajo Station in Arizona and the Four Corners installation on the Arizona-New Mexico border are the largest but other coal plants are stationed in Utah and Nevada. Altogether these add up to 20 percent of the state’s electrical generation. The remaining of imports electricity come from the Palo Verde Nuclear Station in Arizona and from hydroelectric power imported from the Upper Northwest. Hydro is very seasonal, with most of it coming in the summer when the Northwest is cool while California needs air conditioning.

The chart gives actual flows of electricity between the different regions and Canada in gigawatts. The 24 GW from the Northwest added to the 47.2 from the Southwest add up to 71.2. When the 4.6 GW of exports are subtracted, the total is 66.6, which constitutes 24 percent. No other intersectional transfers approach the volume of California’s imports.

In 2005, Environmental Defense published a study called “Clearing California’s Coal Shadow from the American West,” claiming that California’s growing demands for power were causing considerable air pollution in neighboring states. Despite the state’s very visible embrace of renewable energy in the form of massive solar installations in the desert, nothing much has changed.

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