California Is Bursting With Renewables - Except When It's Needed Most

California Is Bursting With Renewables – Except When It’s Needed Most

LOS ANGELES — As California suffered from an epic heat wave this month, state officials pleaded with residents to conserve power. Almost simultaneously, power grid operators were rejecting thousands of megawatts of solar and wind power that could have provided a cushion through the crisis.

The explanation illustrates one of the paradoxes California faces as it races toward a clean energy economy: The state has racked up so much renewable energy generation in recent years that it can rarely fully utilized during peak production hours. But it also doesn’t have enough storage capacity to hang on to when needed.

The result is that managers are often forced to forgo solar power generation while the sun is shining, just hours before customer demand peaks in the late afternoon and evening. The same thing happens to a lesser extent with wind power – and the problem also arises in several other states.

“It all boils down to this problem which is not how much energy we have, but when and where the energy is produced,” said James Bushnell, professor of economics at the University of California to Davis. “Especially solar resources – it’s just in the wrong places and at the wrong times.”

Some solar power operators accept the discount as the cost of doing business because larger plants can absorb more sun later in the day, even if they overproduce during the sunniest hours. This can benefit consumers, who may see lower rates when solar power is operating, as it is generally a cheaper energy source than fossil fuels. Advocates of the system say some inefficiency is to be expected as California embarks on the nation’s most ambitious transition to clean energy, and that eventually there should be enough storage of battery to ensure excess power is not wasted.

But solar and wind generation in California is at this point well ahead of storage capacity and, in some cases, not located near adequate transmission lines. Batteries and transmission lines can be expensive to build and find space, fueling the fossil fuel industry’s skepticism of green power.

The need not to waste excess energy was underscored during the record-breaking heat wave that scorched California for 10 straight days earlier this month, breaking heat records as temperatures soared well above above 100 degrees. Energy demand soared as residents hid indoors and turned up their air conditioners.

State officials have advocated for conservation and issued daily alerts advising Californians to limit their energy use from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Officials have urged residents to set their thermostats to 78 degrees during these hours and not to charge cars or use large appliances.

Despite these efforts, on September 6, the state set a record for power consumption and nearly imposed targeted blackouts to protect the power grid, something that hadn’t happened in two years. State officials say they averted the power outages that evening simply by sending an urgently written emergency text message to residents, who responded by rapidly reducing their power usage.

Yet just hours earlier, California had been flooded with energy. Solar production was in full swing by mid-morning as the sun beat down on hundreds of solar panel factories across the state. At 10 a.m., the California Independent System Operator, the state’s power grid operator, was rejecting hundreds of megawatts of solar power – unable to use it right now, make room for it on the grid congested electricity from the state or save it for later when consumer demand peaks.

By 5 p.m., as massive consumer demand strained the grid, authorities had turned away more than 3,000 megawatts of solar power. Customer demand was skyrocketing, but solar production dwindled as night fell and officials no longer had access to that overabundant solar power from earlier in the day. Nonetheless, officials managed to make it through the day without power outages by switching to other power sources and texting residents.

Some experts have noted that extreme heat waves caused by climate change will only become more frequent, while one of the chosen solutions to climate change – renewable energy, especially solar – is not always there when we need it.

“The very technology the state relies on to reduce carbon emissions, solar power, drops exactly when demand for electricity is at its peak,” said Kyle Meng, co-director of the climate and energy program of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Environmental Markets Solutions Lab. “One of our main remedies for combating climate change could also make us more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”

“The irony is that the very technology we rely on to fight climate change makes us vulnerable exactly at the times when climate impacts are most severe.”

The practice of rejecting renewable energy generation is called “diminishing,” and it has risen rapidly in California in recent years — before dropping slightly last year — as the state aggressively pushes to add more energy. renewables to its energy mix, according to US calculations. Energy Information Administration. In 2020, the California Independent System Operator curtailed some 1.5 million megawatt hours, or 5% of its total solar generation, according to the EIA; last year the percentage was closer to 4.2%.

Anne F. Gonzales, senior public information manager at Independent System Operator, explained via email that “this helps stabilize the network to remove some of the excess supply from the system.” She added that during the heat wave, Californians were encouraged to pre-cool their homes in the middle of the day, allowing them to benefit from cheap and plentiful solar energy during the day and setting thermostats higher. later.

Even so, grid operators had more solar power than they could use.

“People worry when there’s a reduction in solar power, but the reality is that we have too much renewable energy at some times and not enough at other times,” said UC’s Bushnell. – Davis. “If we had enough storage capacity, we could absorb this surplus. … This is where everyone hopes it will happen.

Indeed, battery storage has grown rapidly in California, including a huge facility in Northern California on the site of a former Pacific Gas and Electric power plant. Overall capacity doubled last year and is expected to continue to grow rapidly, aided by tax credits included in the recent Federal Inflation Reduction Act. The batteries started up during the heat wave and state officials praised their performance.

Industry experts expect the amount of available storage – or potentially other uses for excess energy – to eventually increase to the point where reduction occurs on a much smaller scale, if at all. everything. They note that California is experiencing a rapid energy transition, moving from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, including coal just a decade ago, to a grid expected to be 100% clean energy by 2045. The network of the future is under construction. in real time, with inefficiencies and perverse incentives always ironed out.

“I view the reduction as something that’s a leading indicator of how you’re going to add more storage,” said Alex Morris, executive director of the California Energy Storage Alliance, an industry group. “In California, you see increasing amounts of storage every year absorbing and positioning themselves to capture additional energy.”

Another possible solution to the oversupply of renewable energy would be a massive shift in consumer demand, so that residents use electricity in the middle of the day instead of in the afternoon or at night, said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. This has been discussed by policy makers, but would require the cooperation of utilities to rethink tariff structures.

In Texas, where wind power is being reduced in massive amounts, many of the same questions have arisen around the practice. Some wonder how excess energy could be used onsite in wind or solar power plants, avoiding the need for transmission elsewhere. Bitcoin mining and mobile data labs have been offered as possible candidates to absorb the excess power.

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