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Published on March 19th, 2015 | by Guest Contributor


50% California Renewables Possible By 2030 With Smart Choices

March 19th, 2015 by  

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.

Painted California flag

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.

Rooftop solar PV installers

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.

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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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  • Michael G

    The article and many of the comments focus on electricity but use the term energy as a short form. Gasoline, and NG are also big energy users that the grid doesn’t really affect. CA (where I and many others live) can do much more than just have it’s grid go 50% RE.

    There is a lot of building going on here. Many buildings use NG for hot water and heating. We can require all new buildings to be net energy neutral. There are plenty of ways builders can do this. It is simply inertia that has builders doing the same old thing in the same old way.

    We can increase the gasoline tax and give rebates at auto renewal time to EVs, and cars getting over 35 MPG (to be raised to 55 MPG over time)

    Make public transportation free. It is already *very* heavily subsidized (around 80%) so a few more dollars (from the gas tax) won’t make much difference to the budget. Getting more people out of cars will also delay further road building saving tax dollars. Not having to buy a ticket will speed boarding times.

    Allow private mini-bus cos. to offer routes that public transport can’t offer. This exists in the Queens borough of NYC and provides a valuable service to many localities who are not on a bus route. Plenty of churches and other organizations with buses they seldom use would be happy to make a few dollars during rush hour.

  • Ronald Brakels

    50% renewable electricity in 15 years? That’s not a particularly difficult goal to achieve. Now exuse me for blowing my own horn, but whe you are as gifted as I am it can be hard to avoid temptation. South Australia went from basically no renewable energy to 40% wind and solar in a decade and it’s clear that going to 50% is not going to be a problem. In that decade the cost of wind and solar power have dropped considerably making California’s task much easier. California has transmission connections with other states and a large amount of hydro capacity which makes things easier. It even has the 1.2 gigawatt Helms pumped storage plant that can apparently store a ridiculous 15.5 gigawatt-hours or so, which is about 13 hours of generation at 100% of capacity. Double the turbines on that sucker and it can slurp up a lot of surplus solar electricity in the day and wind electricity in the wee hours of the morning and meet a lot of demand in the evening. Now my horn blowage can’t really apply to wind power in the rest of Australia as those states with coal industries tend to have little wind capacity for some strange reason, but Australia does show what can be done with rooftop solar, even in the face of a lot of opposition from coal friendly politicians and sometimes zero feed-in tariffs.

  • Steven F

    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.”

    That is not going to happen. All grid connected solar systems monitor the grid voltage if the grid voltage gets too high the solar system will stop exporting power. That is no different than..

    “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.”

    This is not really an expensive option. If there is no demand of the extra power no one is going to by it. No buyers no profit. However if you let solar overwhelm the grid it could crash and that would cause a lot of extra cost on customers and utilities. The only way to prevent curtailment of excess renewables is to store the excess power or use it to make fuel for aircraft or ships.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Taking it a step further…

      We commonly overbuild capacity, then use it when needed. On average our coal plants run run less than 60% of the time and our natural gas plants run less than 30% of the time.

      Later on those “wasted” solar kWh will probably be sucked up by EVs and storage.

      • Ronald Brakels

        If we built another large wind farm here in South Australia it would probably just kill our remaining coal power station. (Or maybe switch it to summer only generation and possibly just one of two units.) We’d be generating 50% of our electricity from renewables and the amount of curtailment would be trivial. Now if we went over 50% renewables then with as things as they are we would start curtailing more, but we have plenty of room for demand management as our current electricity pricing is still set up for a grid dominated by fossil fuel power. Currently the local supermarket has no incentive to switch on its freezers when the price of electricity goes negative but that would be easy to fix (in a sensible world). And in Australia it looks very likely that we’ll end up with a lot of home and business energy storage as rather than export electricity from rooftop solar for perhaps 1 cent a kilowatt-hour people will want to store it and use it in the evening instead of 30 cent a kilowatt-hour grid electricity. We can’t buy batteries that make that worthwhile in Australia yet, but that is definitely something that could change over the next few years.

        So curtailment is not something that needs to be worried about yet, and we’re likely to find out that it’s not going to be much of an issue in the future. And even if the price of not downing Bangladeshi children turns out to be curtailing a lot of electricity generation, then I’ll probably loose less sleep over that than, you know, drowning children.

    • Omega Centauri

      Its expensive, not because of the additional cost of the curtailment tech, you’ve shown it is either small or zero. But, generation capacity not being used has an opportunity cost. If we did dynamic electricity pricing then the value of sunny day power might become too low to support more solar buildout. Obviously creating supply/demand flexibility elsewhere in the system will increase the amount of economical solar penetration.

      One intriguing possibility: convert geothermal from baseline to dispatchable power (which requires storing steam, and creating excess steam turbine capacity). California is currently getting just over a GW of geothermal 24/7. If this was coverted to dispatchable it could balance several times that much solar/wind.

  • spec9

    California needs to start doing some offshore wind. I know, it is expensive. But there is such a great resource out there and it has a high capacity factor. Solar PV continues to grow like crazy . . . we probably need to start installing some grid level storage to have that solar PV help with the 7pm peak.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Work is underway to launch the first West Coast floating turbines out of Coos Bay Oregon. That’s the best port to service floaters for the Northern California coastline. Humboldt Bay has a sandbar issue.

      Once designs for the floating platforms settle in we should see some offshore in SoCal. Good wind around the Channel Islands.

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