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Green energy. (Photo: universityofcalifornia.edu)

New Cal Grid CEO is Ex-Enron Green Power Trader

Does California want to replace existing electric grid with Community Choice Green Energy agencies?

By Wayne Lusvardi, September 29, 2020 11:59 am

Elliot Mainzer, will be the new CEO of the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), as of October 1, replacing Steven Berberich who is retiring.

Mainzer does not hide from his resume that he once “established” the “Renewable Power Desk” for the Enron Corporation in the 1990’s to 2001, after graduating from U.C. Berkeley majoring in geography and finishing a degree from Yale University’s Business Administration and Environment program. Enron officials were convicted for accounting fraud and were implicated in the California Energy Crisis of 2001 but did not cause the crisis.  Mainzer was not one of the indicted Enron traders.

Elliot Mainzer, CEO of CalISO. (Photo: caiso.com and bpa.gov)

Even though Cal-ISO touts that it is an independent operator of about 80 percent of California’s electrical grid, its Imbalancing Market members are not represented on the board of governors. Rather, its five Board members are appointed by the California governor, dispelling any notion of independence.  The ISO Imbalance Market is funded by various public and private power providers throughout the West, but it is a de facto state agency. Mainzer was appointed by Cal-ISO’s Board.

Mainzer worked his way up the career ladder at the Federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that runs a series of hydropower dams and 15,000 miles of electric transmission lines along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. His job titles included:

  • Administrator
  • Deputy administrator
  • Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy
  • Manager of transmission policy and rates
  • Manager of customer service engineering
  • Trading Floor Manager
  • Manager of pricing and transaction analysis

The BPA will be part of California’s Energy Imbalancing Market in 2022, which sells mainly available hydropower in California’s daily spot market to meet power demands during the sunset hours when solar power fades out.

The regional Imbalancing Market has been implicated in the recent rolling blackouts in California.  From August 14 to 18, California’s Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) could not find enough backup power in the Energy Imbalancing Market after 1,000 megawatts of wind power was lost due to dying winds and a 470-megawatt gas power plant went offline unexpectedly. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged Warren Buffett’s Pacificorp to follow through and remove four hydropower dams at it expense on the Klamath River that are part of Cal-ISO’s Energy Imbalancing Market.  The dams are to be removed and watershed management handed over to a non-profit management organization run by the Karuk and Yurok Indian Tribes without competitive bid or qualifications. But FERC ruled the tribes lack the financial capacity to manage the huge potential liabilities from flooding, silt release and toxic cleanup if the dams are removed.

Where Mainzer positions Cal-ISO on this issue might be a signal of whether he will advocate for environmentalism at the expense of grid reliability.

Cal ISO. (Photo: caiso.com)

Apparently, California wants to eventually get rid of the electric grid as it now exists and replace it with thousands of micro-grids that are aligned with local, non-profit Community Choice Green Energy agencies. But how would the grid operator assure reliability today?  Many California cities already are willing to pay the $40 to $300 million exit fee to opt out of Community Choice because of higher costs than the old monopoly electrical utilities (e.g., Palos Verdes Estates, San Luis Obispo County, Rancho Palos Verdes, City of Dixon).

Outgoing Cal-ISO administrator, Steven Berberich partly blamed local Community Choice Power procuring agencies for refusing to comply with an order of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to buy 3,300 megawatts of backup natural gas power and instead invested in solar battery storage.

Ralph Cavanaugh of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently said: “…thanks in no small part to Elliott (Mainzer) himself, BPA has soared as a catalyst for decarbonizing the Pacific Northwest region and advancing core values of environmental stewardship.” Prior to Mainzer, Cavanaugh stated “BPA” was “a classic cartoon villain dedicated and despoiling a spectacular northwest with endless progression of coal, nuclear and hydropower projects.”

But the situation Mainzer is walking into in California is the reverse of what he experienced in the Northwest in 1989 where government administrators had to prove environmental credentials for political legitimacy with the powerful environmental lobby. Instead of “dirty” coal and natural gas power being the villain, it saved Southern California from recent blackouts while green Central California experienced most of the blackouts. Dispatchable, imported gas power was not available to Cal-ISO during the recent heat wave because neighboring states have expanded solar in their energy mix, requiring them to use their natural gas power for their own needs.

In “Insight into how Arizona Power Company Avoids Blackouts as California Remains on Flex Alert,” Jill Hanks of Arizona Power Service stated that the key to avoiding blackouts is a diverse energy mix.

Former California Energy Commission Policy Advisor Tom Tanton has warned that when the state achieves its all electric cars and appliances mandate, the power grid will become so unbalanced with green power, that a blackout will shut down everything, perhaps taking the entire western region with it.  Even California’s governor recently stated that blackouts “will not stand.”

How can the head of California’s power grid respond responsibly to structured blackouts brought about by expansion of solar power in neighboring states to California when he has already branded himself as an environmentalist?

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