A runaway energy industry is costing California billions

The state has more than enough power. So why are we paying higher prices and building new plants?

In 2000, California was booming

Fireworks over the coast at Buenaventura Pier (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

With a thriving economy and growing population, electricity use skyrocketed

Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Times analysis

The power ran short and blackouts hit

Source: Times coverage

Facing public outrage, state leaders pushed a simple-sounding solution: Build more power plants

Construction of La Paloma natural gas plant in Kern County in 2001 (Gary Kazanjian / Associated Press)

Back then, California relied on about 700 plants, big and small. State officials said that wasn't enough

Sources: EIA, Natural Earth, Times analysis

A wave of construction kicked off with Sutter Energy Center in Yuba City

Expected to produce power for decades, Sutter was exactly what state leaders sought

Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 at Sutter Energy Center (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

The long-term solution to this problem depends on having more power than we need.

— Gov. Gray Davis, July 2001

Source: Times coverage (Lee Celano / Associated Press)

Over the next 15 years, nearly 500 more plants opened, including dozens of large facilities like Sutter

Sources: EIA, Natural Earth, Times analysis

The state's power supply jumped 43%, boosting energy reserves to a new high

Sources: EIA, Times analysis

But along the way, something happened

A man touches a Wall Street statue in 2008 after a sharp fall in international markets (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

During a deep recession, Californians started using less power

Sources: EIA, Times analysis

Appliances became more efficient. Solar panels started appearing on rooftops

Workers install solar panels on a Glendale home (Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

As more plants competed for less business, some generators started to idle

By 2015, most California plants generated less than a third of their potential power

Sources: EIA, Natural Earth, Times analysis

Among them was Sutter Energy Center, where production plummeted

Sources: EIA, Times analysis

After years of decline, Sutter shut down in 2016, only halfway into its expected lifespan

Sutter Energy Center in Yuba City about one year after it closed (David Butow / For The Times)

Now two of the state's largest plants may also close because their power isn't needed. Others could soon follow

The large stacks of the Moss Landing power plant off Monterey Bay (Keith A. Ellenbogen / Associated Press)

So, why should you care?

Transmission towers cross the Yuha Desert near El Centro (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

It's costing you money

More supply and less demand should drive down costs. Instead, California's electricity rates have surged 12% since 2008

Prices adjusted for inflation to 2015 dollars. Sources: EIA, Times analysis

Meanwhile, prices have declined in the rest of the country

Prices adjusted for inflation to 2015 dollars. Sources: EIA, Times analysis

All told, the annual bill to ratepayers has risen $6.8 billion since Californians started using less power

Source: EIA. Photo: The AES plant in Huntington Beach was expanded during California's building boom (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

Why doesn't the building stop?

More than 100 wind turbines started generating energy near Ocotillo in 2012 (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Utility companies are guaranteed profits on new plants, regardless of how much power they sell

A utility worker strings up new power lines in Temple City in 2011 (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

That encourages Southern California Edison and other utilities to build plants, even if there's no immediate need for their power

PUC President Michael Peevey and Southern California Edison Chairman John Bryson at 2006 opening of the Mountainview plant in Redlands (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times).

Government officials charged with regulating those utilities say overbuilding is part of their plan to avoid blackouts

A worker surveys the construction site at the Genesis Solar Energy Project in the Sonoran Desert. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Redundancy is important to reliability.

— Michael Picker, president of California Public Utilities Commission, May 2016

Picker at a 2014 PUC meeting in San Francisco (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Others disagree

The winners are the energy companies. The losers are businesses and families.

— Loretta Lynch, head of the state Public Utilities Commission during the blackouts

Lynch during a 2016 interview (Albert Lee / Los Angeles Times)

There's nothing complicated. It's just bad planning.

— Robert McCullough, energy researcher and consultant

McCullough at the Bonneville Lock and Damn in Oregon (Tim LaBarge / For The Times)

Criticism hasn't stopped the state. More than 10 large new plants are in the works