By Michael O’Boyle and Hal Harvey of Energy Innovation
During his State of the State address, Governor Brown proposed a goal of 50% renewable energy on California’s electric grid by 2030. Since then, State Senators and Assembly Members have introduced bills to turn the goal into law. The bills are quite clear on the 50% goal, but scant on details, raising the question – is this bold goal realistic?
The answer depends on how we move forward. If California exploits existing technologies and optimizes the way we manage the grid, 50% renewables is completely feasible. But if we make the wrong choices, or simply extrapolate today’s policies, the state will face risks.
It all comes down to how we choose to integrate renewables onto the grid.
Clearly, the status quo won’t cut it. A report from Energy and Environmental Economics (E3), independent analysts specializing in energy issues, investigated electric reliability and rate impacts under a 50% by 2030 renewables requirement. The report, commissioned by California’s five largest electric utilities, explores what happens if massive amounts of solar and wind are added to today’s system. It’s crucial to understand E3 was not asked to find the smartest or cheapest way to meet the 50% goal, but rather was asked to assume current utility trends extend through 2030.
The study’s results are mixed. The upside is that 50% renewables are technically feasible, meaning we can meet Governor Brown’s 2030 goal while keeping the lights on, and can continue deploying renewables with confidence that our electric service won’t be interrupted. Moreover, this increase is possible with today’s technology; no new breakthroughs are needed.
The downside is that simply installing more solar arrays but doing nothing else will generate more electricity than we need on some sunny days, which could overwhelm a grid. The study “solves” this problem by cutting off electricity from solar systems on those days, essentially rejecting free energy from the sun – an expensive proposition.
But the E3 report never intended to investigate the optimal energy mix in 2030. Instead, the study asked if 50% renewables is possible under the same approach we’ve already used to reach our current level of 25% renewables. Building an innovative energy system requires innovative grid planning, not simply continuing past trends. And that’s exactly where our great opportunity lies.
Fortunately, a few months ago, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory — America’s premier authority on renewables — released its Low Carbon Grid Study, examining the least-cost, most-reliable resource mix for a low-carbon future in California. The study’s results are astounding and encouraging: Combining diverse renewable resources and new technologies achieves Governor Brown’s goal — or even more — with no new electric bill increases.
Instead of assuming business-as-usual management, the study analyzed options to manage a low-carbon grid including technologies to intelligently manage demand (energy efficiency, smart thermostats, and smart appliances), more batteries, smart electric vehicle charging, and a more diverse mix of power plants. These technologies are all commercially viable today, but are still operating at a small scale in California.
The NREL study also finds more renewables reduce fossil fuel costs and carbon emissions enough to offset the cost of building new infrastructure and clean energy — and because wind and sunshine are free, the policy will lock in stable utility bills. As we wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we also insulate ourselves from volatile natural gas price fluctuations.
California has led the nation in environmental policy, and as a consequence, also leads the nation in producing clean energy technology. 50% renewables by 2030, accompanied by smart utility planning, is the obvious next step. It will give our citizens cleaner air, stable bills, and a commanding position in the booming clean energy industry.
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