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Published on July 30th, 2014 | by Joshua S Hill

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How To Power California With Wind, Wave, & Solar Energy

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July 30th, 2014 by  

With a population of over 38 million and rising, California has often been deemed of sufficient size to almost be considered a nation-state of its own. The Golden State’s GDP is on par with many countries, and the state has also been a global leader in renewable energy — often standing apart from its parent country’s political decisions.

So, it’s no surprise that a new study has been released by Stanford researchers showing how California could convert to an all-renewable energy infrastructure that is both technically and economically feasible.

The plan, published in Energy, outlines what it would take to make the change, and all the benefits that would come with it.

Power California With Wind, Wave, And Solar

Moon Rise behind the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm. Image Credit: Chuck Coker via Flickr

“If implemented, this plan will eliminate air pollution mortality and global warming emissions from California, stabilize prices and create jobs – there is little downside,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, the study’s lead author and a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering.

It’s not a half-thought out plan, either, taking into account California’s transportation, electric power, industry, heating, and cooling needs. All employment and financial benefits are laid out, as well as the land and ocean areas necessary, and policies required. It also provides new estimates of air pollution mortality and morbidity impacts.

It’s not the first time the authors have set their minds to redefining a state’s energy infrastructure, having created a similar plan for New York once before. This time, it’s their aim to power California with wind, wave, and solar, and it’s only the second on their way to creating plans for the entirety of the US.

The plan would create approximately 220,000 manufacturing, installation, and technology construction and operation jobs — and that’s taking into account the losses of fossil-fuel and nuclear jobs. Additionally, California would walk away with net earnings of around $12 billion annually.

One scenario shows California’s energy needs being met by 2050 with a mix of sources:

  • 25,000 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
  • 1,200 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants
  • 15 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems
  • 72 100-megawatt geothermal plants
  • 5,000 0.75-megawatt wave devices
  • 3,400 1-megawatt tidal turbines

“I think the most interesting finding is that the plan will reduce social costs related to air pollution and climate change by about $150 billion per year in 2050, and that these savings will pay for all new energy generation in only seven years,” said study co-author Mark Delucchi of the University of California, Davis.

“The technologies needed for a quick transition to an across-the-board, renewables-based statewide energy system are available today,” said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor and study co-author. “Like New York, California has a clear choice to make: Double down on 20th-century fossil fuels or accelerate toward a clean, green energy future.”

Plans such as these can often languish in academic space forever, without ever making it into the minds of politicians and society. Hopefully Jacobson and co. will have better luck getting their ideas out into the real world.

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About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.



  • Scott Bergquist

    I see a lot of concerns about energy storage. Perhaps liquifying air during the night, and using it to cool buildings in the daytime (saving on electricity used for air conditioning compression) should be studied. Some tentative steps have been taken to creating buses powered by expanding liquified air…no pollution, and they create their own onboard A/C! Range is not too great an issue with intracity buses.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Companies have been storing “cool” for a while. Either in the form of ice or cooled salts solutions. Ice Bear is one of the brands.

      Compressed air vehicles just haven’t made it to the big time after several attempts. The most promising city bus solution is BYD’s battery powered bus. It has adequate range for most city routes. BYD is opening a plant in Brazil to furnish buses for South America and intend to manufacture in the US for North America.

  • Dag Johansen

    I’ve seen Mark give a presentation. He has been learning a lot as he goes . . . such as the fact that it is much easier to sell pollution elimination due to increasing health than it is to sell climate change mitigation. But I think he needs to trim out some of the more far-out ideas (like hydrogen powered airplanes).

  • Vensonata

    Here’s my idea for off shore floating wind turbine platforms: a catamaran of two old oil tankers, extra ballast. Basically provides full service platforms, easy to move, cheap, stable and available(?).

    • Bob_Wallace

      I’d like to see someone consider ferro-cement. Weld together the structural frame. Cover it with a layer of something cheap. Use layers of sprayed concrete and wire mesh to complete the floats.

      I would think that if we had a port facility that was turning these things out for all the potential wind farms on a given coast the price could be brought way down. And the rigs can be completed at dockside and towed to their anchors. That’s cheaper than hauling turbines, blades, towers and cranes to an onshore wind farm.

  • http://fmwdistinct.com/ carl mason

    Renewable energy is certainly the way forward…Solar energy is very under used…http://southernselectrical.com/

  • JamesWimberley

    Link, Joshua?
    I’m curious what percentage of the time there will be excess production available at 0c per kwh. A priori this will be quite high. Without massive storage, you have to overbuild both solar and wind to cover as many times as possible when the other is AWOL, then build enough expensive despatchables to cover the remainder. If you have really cheap storage, you can avoid overbuild, otherwise not. It’s an entirely possible scenario that there will be huge amounts of power available irregularly for sequestration or synthetic fuels. Brave new world.

    • Bob_Wallace

      With wind under 4c and solar on the way to cheaper, overbuilding to some extent will be cheaper than storing.

      EV and PHEV owners are likely to furnish very large amounts of dispatchable load at little cost to the utility.

      ​​
      Unless the capex and fixed O&M costs for fuel production are very low it’s not going to make sense to build fuel plants that run only a few hours a day. Sit and wait costs would need to be very low.

  • Steven F

    If you don’t want to pay for the study you can find it for free at this site:

    http://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CaliforniaWWS.pdf

    Note that this study is about replacing all fossil fuel usage (oil, natural gas, and coal) with renewables. The study doesn’t include storage. So as a result it overbuilds so that even on a bad day enough energy is available.

    For example the study calls for 25,000 5MW wind turbines on shore. However other than a few places in the state that concentrate the wind, most of the state has little to no wind energy potential. One area with reasonable wind potential is the ocean coast. There is a reasonable sea breeze on most days. The coast is about 840 miles long. You world need to install 29 turbines every mile. you cannot put that many turbines that close due to the disturbance they create reduces power generation on the neighboring turbines.

    “1,200 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants”. About 10 years ago California set a demand record during a very strong heat wave 70 GW. Solar thermal power plants have a proven way to store energy. Only 700 100-megawatt solar thermal power plants with enough storage for 24 hour power would be needed. not 1200. Additionally on most days the 700 solar thermal power plants would produce 2 times the needed electricity. If that excess is used to make Ammonia, that ammonia could be later burned to produce electricity when solar was not enough to meet demand. it would only take about 3 days of excess power during the summer to create enough ammonia to for 1 day of backup in the winter.

    I also think this study underestimates the future impact of residential PV and geothermal power plants. Overall this study is not very usefull.

    • jeffhre

      “I also think this study underestimates the future impact of residential PV and geothermal power plants.” Thank you, I did have questions about the study implications regarding these sources…have a projects to get to before I will read it. And I did subconsciously read the “25,000 onshore 5MW turbines” as offshore – since it just doesn’t seem likely to occur at all, as 25,000 5MW sized onshore turbines?

    • Scott Bergquist

      The wind potential is all at the Sierra crest. All the m/s wind studies show that the edge of the highest ridge tops in the Sierra Nevada mountains have incredible wind energy densities. But transporting electricity (i.e. new towers, transformer stations) to cities is very expensive.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Transmission would be needed only between the farm(s) site and the Pacific Intertie.

  • Kevin McKinney
  • Vensonata

    Now this is bold thinking! What a world changing example this would be if they could pull it off. California would be the ultimate battleground between the old world and the new…oil billionaires vs tech billionaires. I think, much to the surprise of the jaded, this sane vision will come to be.

  • SecularAnimist

    A link to the original article would be helpful.

  • DGW

    Geothermal energy solves the intermittent issue of some renewable energy systems and California is a leader as well as Iceland.
    Yes the costs are higher and risks are greater, but why hasn’t geothermal energy boomed the way wind and solar has?
    It would seem geothermal is the baseline renewable energy to make everything else happen.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Geothermal simply costs more per kWh than wind and solar.

      More geothermal is being built but I don’t see it becoming more than a minor player. Same with tidal.

      Wind direct and solar direct plus some stored wind/solar are likely to be our major supplies. The other renewable might make up 20%, combined. (Just a guess.)

      “Baseline” is an old concept left from the fossil fuel ages. Better we leave it behind and think instead of providing power when people want it. It doesn’t matter whether power comes from an ‘always on’ generator, one that has variable output, or storage. Each region/grid will work out the best mix of inputs that allows them to deliver reliable electricity at the best price.

      • GCO

        Indeed. I was curious about the importance of each renewable in the scenario described above. Here is the tally:
        195 GW (58%) solar
        125 GW (37%) wind
        7.2 GW (~2%) geothermal
        7.15 GW (~2%) wave + tidal

        • JamesWimberley

          That’s capacity. The production in Gwh of the last two categories would be a bigger share. Also, wind would produce more gwh than solar.

      • Offgridman

        The one thing that I noticed is that all of the wind generation is listed as land based even with the federal government now opening up off shore deep water floating options for the west coast.
        From my amateur perspective it seems like some of this should be included just for the basis of reliability.

        • Bob_Wallace

          California’s best wind is offshore, especially off the NoCal shore. But the water is deep.

          I suspect that once the price of floating wind turbines starts to fall we’ll see more wind showing up on CA energy models.

          • Offgridman

            Yes, after I posted got to wondering about costs myself.
            Another thought is that this is all based on established industries and expenses and so far the offshore is still in the experimental phases.
            Probably as all of the different renewables develop and improve this specific mix will change according to costs, reliability, accessibility, etc., as this is based on current feasibility.
            Should have thought it through a little better before asking my question.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I recently read about a company that says it can cut the cost of the floating platform by 50%. If they can do something like that then formulas/mixes will shift in a hurry. With offshore’s higher capacity, daytime production and ease of siting, if the cost can be cut then look for a lot of it to be installed.

            I think that’s going to be the name of the game. There is such a tremendous amount of money to be made in new energy technology that huge amount of money and some of the best brains are going to be pushing to find ways to capture a hunk of what’s coming.

            We’re going to replace the oil, coal, and (eventually) the NG industries. That is not small money.

            Because of all the resources being applied I suspect we’ll see new solutions appearing, some from out of nowhere, that will push aside something else that seemed like a sure thing. Predicting out more than a handful of years is likely folly.

          • Offgridman

            Just have to say agreed because you have expressed my thoughts but in a much better way.
            And by the way just have to love the earlier article on Australia and how the real problem with the utilities and fossil fuel production of electricity is just over capacity. Am definitely looking forward to when the same situation applies here with the natural gas power plants and fracking industry.
            Which leads me to thinking that eventually the same thing is going to happen to Russia when the EU and China no longer need their gas or oil. It will be great to see Putin get cut down but it will be heck on the economy and the regular people of Russia. Have to wonder if they won’t be left as the last big emitters of CO2 because while there are some small starts towards renewables it doesn’t seem like much compared with the rest of the world. With the small start of penalties over Crimea and the aircraft shoot down what will it turn into if they are the last great polluters in the world.

          • JamesWimberley

            I expect Japan will drive the technology of floating wind platforms. Like California, they have next to no continental shelf on the populous Pacific side; but fewer other good options (too mountainous for onshore wind, too little sun for CSP).

          • GCO

            we’ll see new solutions appearing

            Definitely. This is one airborne wind turbine design for example caught my attention (now acquired by Google): http://www.google.com/makani/

            I dig it. And yes, it’s pretty adequate for off-shore deployments too. Interesting times ahead for sure…

          • Scott Bergquist

            One of the most expensive costs of anything offshore is utilizing human labor offshore. Whenever employees go to sea, it is incredibly expensive. Step one to wave, tidal, and offshore wind (although I am betting that wind will disappear once wave energy becomes economical) is to develop the robotics that keep people onshore, operating flying drones tethered to ships that have onboard robotics themselves doing labor and siting equipment in the ocean and on the ocean floor. There has been a woeful dearth of robotics offshore.

      • JamesWimberley

        Tidal is intrinsically limited by suitable sites, as is conventional wet geothermal. Jacobsen’s low geothermal number is presumably based on known wet Californian geo resources. Dry rock geo – EGS – is the joker. It works in pilots only so far. If there are breakthroughs in both drilling (lasers) and reservoir modelling and stimulation, then EGS will suddenly become a first-choice technology. The resource is ample and widespread, the despatchability of an established well is over 95%. In a sense, “geothermal” is as misleading a category as “renewables”: it mixes up a bankable, limited technology with a long shot of enormous potential and high risk.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I agree. But so far drilling has been the stopper. Multiple companies have tried different drilling technologies (thermal spallation and beefed up oil drilling rigs) but no one has managed to drill the depth and size holes needed at an acceptable price.

    • Dag Johansen

      The intermittent issue is so overblown. It is easily solved with a mix of source diversity, geographic diversity, geothermal, hydro, pumped-hydro, some grid storage, demand-response, efficiency, and a few peaker plants.

      • Scott Bergquist

        Pumped hydro is very expensive, and is site-specific. Look at Eagle Crest, a company that has attempted pumped hydro for years:

        http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/environment/2014/06/20/eagle-mountain-hydroelectric-plant/11033841/

        You can create “pumped hydro” offshore, utilizing buoyancy in place of a dam wall.

        • Bob_Wallace

          PuHS is not “very expensive”. I’d be hesitant to take too much from a hit piece.

          PuHS is site limited, but we have thousands of appropriate sites.

          No one has yet demonstrated affordable buoyancy storage.

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