Energy

Buffett, Green Groups Set To Battle It Out Over Solution To California’s Impending Blackouts

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The Sierra Club will face off against two West Coast power companies Tuesday over a proposed business merger intended to prevent blackouts that are a result of unreliable solar power.

The environmental group will try to block the proposed merger of California ISO (CAISO) and Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp by claiming that an environmental impact study performed by CAISO shows that the merger will increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If the merger increases CO2 emissions, it can be prevented under legislation passed last September. The merger has the potential to fracture the environmental movement, as it pits The Sierra Club against a Warren Buffett, a major Hillary Clinton supporter and donor.

“This study confirms our worst fears,” Kathryn Phillips, Director of Sierra Club California, said in a press statement. “Carbon pollution from power plants will increase across the region if a proposal to merge California’s energy market with PacifiCorp occurs […] according to preliminary results.”

CAISO immediately began rebutting the environmental group’s claim, saying that the merger will actually cause CO2 emissions to fall by 10 percent by 2030.

“Although these are preliminary results, we’re encouraged by the considerable benefits possible with a regional energy market,” Steve Berberich, president and CEO of CAISO, wrote in a press release published the same day as the Sierra Club’s statement. “The findings urge us to continue exploring the advantages and challenges of a regional energy market, while including many voices in a transparent and thorough stakeholder process.”

The merger casts doubt on solar power. CAISO was forced to shut down solar farms in March because they were damaging the power grid. CAISO’s proposed solution to its reliability issues was to merge its power grid with Buffett’s PacifiCorp, Oregon’s electrical utility. PacifiCorp has access to additional reliable coal power plants that could offset the unreliability of California’s solar systems.

Since forecasts cannot predict the output of solar and wind plants with high accuracy, grid operators have to keep excess reserves running just in case. The unpredictability places extra stress on the grid, which can lead to brownouts or blackouts, similar to those that struck the state in 2000 and 2001.

Without the merger, experts state that California’s power grid will be incredibly vulnerable to blackouts this summer. CAISO has already dialed down wind and solar farms to their minimum load requirements in an attempt to avert disaster, but damage to the grid and minor power interruptions have already occurred.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups took an immediate dislike to solving the state’s unreliable power problem with the merger. The groups sent a letter to California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in February demanding California suffer blackouts rather than merge grids with a company that uses coal power.

The law which could prevent the merger is extremely controversial, as critics claim it harms the state’s economy, kills California’s manufacturing base and increases energy prices. These attacks are so numerous that the state Senate has dedicated an entire page on its website to defending the legislation. Californians pay among the highest prices for electricity in the country, and their state government has enacted more green energy policies than almost any other state.

The merger has the potential to fracture the environmental movement, as it pits The Sierra Club, which has been supportive of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and endorsed her in previous elections, against major Clinton ally Warren Buffett. Buffett, the third richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $60.8 billion, owns PacifiCorp through his finance company Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett has openly endorsed Clinton and even helped her SuperPAC raise $11 million. In fact, Buffett made his first ever political donation to a pro-Hillary PAC despite being a major critic of the funding process.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has a market capitalization of more than $335 billion and has been dumping enormous amounts of money into green energy since 1999. It invested $15 billion into solar and wind projects in 2014 and Buffett himself claims “there’s another $15 billion ready to go, as far as I’m concerned.” Buffett’s energy empire includes major utilities, power transmission companies, and some of the world’s largest solar panel projects.

Environmental groups other than the Sierra Club have been quick to criticize Hillary Clinton’s ties to Buffett and other major figures in the financial industry. Groups like Friends of the Earth Action have even accused Clinton of “soft climate denial.”

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