Can California Handle More Wind and Solar Energy?

Ken Silverstein | Mar 26, 2012

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California’s renewable energy target of 33 percent by 2020 is doable. But it is now time to pause to ensure that the transmission system can handle the potential resources, all according to grid managers and state regulators.

The state is rich with the sustainable energies to bring this requirement to fruition. But many of those resources are located in remote areas and cannot be easily transported to urban areas via the grid. Still, the state is on target to reach its green energy goals, although efforts to push any harder need to be restrained.

“We are well on our way to have it implemented,” says Bob Foster, chair of the California Independent System Operator that manages the state’s grid. “Now that we have this, there are those who want to go a renewable portfolio standard of 40-50 percent. But we need to stop now and digest what we have.”

Foster, who spoke at the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum last week, says that the state’s legislative body needs to understand the implications of ordering “intermittent resources” on to the grid. To accommodate wind and solar, the load has to be “shaped.” That simply means that customers have to be given price signals so that they are motivated to shift their energy use from peak periods to later in the evening when demand eases up. “If this experiment fails in California, it will damage the whole renewables experience” nationwide.

Right now, California generates about 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, although most of that comes from hydropower. A report recently issued by the California Public Utility Commission says that as of May 2011, there was enough renewable generation on line or under construction to reach the 33 percent goal by 2020. It expects much of that future generation to come from solar power.

Still, the agency says that it is keenly aware of the issues that could thwart such development, namely a lack of sufficient infrastructure as well as the array of environmental permits that are required to build such transmission. Moreover, “Because generation from sources may vary over time ... it can cause difficulties for grid operators who must maintain a constant balance between generation supply and real-time customer demand...”

Strategic Plans

According to the American Wind Energy Association, an antiquated transmission system is detrimental to all energy forms -- not just wind and solar. It also says that there are enough transmission lines in the pipeline to allow the wind turbine sector to double in size, and to handle all of the currently pending wind projects.

Also, “Variable electric generation from wind farms can be integrated readily into utility systems,” says Michael Goggin, head of transmission policy for the wind group, in a blog. “Utility system operators already deal regularly with massive swings in electricity demand and in the output of conventional generators.”

Goggin also takes issue with the argument that the use of conventional generators to back up wind and solar when they are not available cause emissions to increase. He cites studies by the U.S Department of Energy showing that Texas and Colorado, which have ramped up their wind programs, have seen their overall emissions drop.

Critics are saying that most base-load generators are designed to go all-day, every-day and not to crank up and down. Doing so, they add is not just inefficient but also dirtier than otherwise. The ultimate result is more pollution and at a time when California, in particular, is trying to curb its emissions, including carbon.

To that end, the California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to a enact cap-and-trade program last fall that is expected to cover 85 of the state’s emissions sources. It is starting off by giving away 90 percent of the credits, which placates the state’s major utilities. About 600 facilities there must reduce their carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That’s roughly a 25 percent cut.

That concerns Ray Orbach, who is the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. Orbach, who addressed the EnergyBiz conference, says that switching from coal to natural gas can have a more profound impact on carbon reductions than certain renewable standards. That’s because natural gas combined cycles are an efficient form of making electricity. “There needs to be a CO2 standard, not an arbitrary goal for wind and solar.”

Enacting policies is one thing. But providing a strategic plan to see them through is another. California appears to be on target to meet its 2020 renewable goals. Before it would get any more aggressive, however, the state must ensure that its network and its policies are up-to-snuff.


EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com


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Comments

wind

the comments to this article are right on point..  California is digging itself into a hole that it will be very difficult to climb out of.  When it comes to Hydro assets most in the US have been fully developed.  WInd and solar keep rolling along and the proponents are ignoring the outrageous all-in cost of those assets.  Talk to the execcutives of the 3 major California utilities and get their real opinion on the damage being caused by only pushing wind and solar with no emphasis given to reliable base-load and peaking capacity

No No and No..

I live in a  town with one of the largest Dams in the country just a stones throw away here in Northern California and a large new wind farm up on the ridgeline to the east of us so let me give you some real ground zero facts. In California Hydro does not count as "renewable" and does not count towards the utilites renewable target. So even tho we have the Dam which is has paid for itself many decades ago and is now providing electricity at a fraction of the cost of any alternative we are looking at price increases of 25% this year alone. The reason given is the need to meet the renewable targets at a much much higher cost than traditional alternatives not to mention having Shasta Dam here in our back yard.  The new wind farm is an amazing achievement of engineering, just not very practical or financially responsible. When it was concieved and built they didn't factor in the winter ice and snow which on the 150 foot blades causes the danger of allowing the windmills to move is extremely dangerous. The Ice sliding along the blades and shooting off large chunks routinely destroyed the transformers located at their base and made it too dangerous to maintain so they have to lock them for most of the winter. This was NOT factored in by the company that built them. I recently took the tour and was amazed how little thought was put into their placement. The snow plows have to clear the road to them several times a day during the winter even tho they are not turning just in case they need to do maintenance. The large equipment necessary is very costly and was not factored in origionally. It has all been very instructive. I know that "renewables' have a place in our energy future but pushing it thru with huge subsidies and high electric rates is foolish and the whole Idea needs to be thought out before being forced down our throats. Not allowing Hydro to count as a renewable is just rediculous. The people pushing this will soon run into a giant wave of anti-renewable sentiment soon. If it was just done in a more thoughtful way it would have been much more acceptable.

No No and No..

I live in a  town with one of the largest Dams in the country just a stones throw away here in Northern California and a large new wind farm up on the ridgeline to the east of us so let me give you some real ground zero facts. In California Hydro does not count as "renewable" and does not count towards the utilites renewable target. So even tho we have the Dam which is has paid for itself many decades ago and is now providing electricity at a fraction of the cost of any alternative we are looking at price increases of 25% this year alone. The reason given is the need to meet the renewable targets at a much much higher cost than traditional alternatives not to mention having Shasta Dam here in our back yard.  The new wind farm is an amazing achievement of engineering, just not very practical or financially responsible. When it was concieved and built they didn't factor in the winter ice and snow which on the 150 foot blades causes the danger of allowing the windmills to move is extremely dangerous. The Ice sliding along the blades and shooting off large chunks routinely destroyed the transformers located at their base and made it too dangerous to maintain so they have to lock them for most of the winter. This was NOT factored in by the company that built them. I recently took the tour and was amazed how little thought was put into their placement. The snow plows have to clear the road to them several times a day during the winter even tho they are not turning just in case they need to do maintenance. The large equipment necessary is very costly and was not factored in origionally. It has all been very instructive. I know that "renewables' have a place in our energy future but pushing it thru with huge subsidies and high electric rates is foolish and the whole Idea needs to be thought out before being forced down our throats. Not allowing Hydro to count as a renewable is just rediculous. The people pushing this will soon run into a giant wave of anti-renewable sentiment soon. If it was just done in a more thoughtful way it would have been much more acceptable.

wind energy versus CO2 emissions

If one wants a bit of information on wind energy versus CO2 reductions, he/she can check a report published by the Civitas group in the UK and another prepared by Dutch physicist C. le Pair.  Both conclude the extensive development of wind in their respective countries has done nothing to decrease CO2 emissions.  Also, one has to look at what would have been done related to power plant construction had there not been subsidized wind and/or RPSs jacking with the electricity markets.  Where firms are putting in simple cycle gas turbines to back up wind, there might have been combined cycle plants built.  Under ideal conditions, the most advanced of simple cycle gas turbines have an efficiency of 41% (LHV) whereas the most advanced of combined cycles have an efficiency pushing 60%.  Hotter weather has a much more dramatic adverse impact on simple cycle gas turbines than it does on combined cycles but right out of the box, one is talking almost 50% less CO2 for a combined cycle than a simple cycle on a per MWh basis--not to mention NOx.  Another effect of the subsidized wind market is that older plants, both coal and gas fired, which would have been retired were not due to screwed up electricity markets.  Instead these older plants were kept operational as back up for subsidized wind and were not replaced by newer, higher efficiency coal plants with all the required pollution abatement or by CCGT plants.  It is highly arguable that wind has not decreased CO2 pollution and that it certainly has not had the CO2 emissions impacts that are commonly touted.

As for Texas and Colorado having decreased CO2 emissions due to wind integration--the depressed economy might also have a lot to do with that.  Besides, I am not sure I trust anything AWEA or DoE has to say about the subject because neither takes a very objective look at it.

CO2 Standard

“There needs to be a CO2 standard, not an arbitrary goal for wind and solar.”

 
If there is to be a CO2 standard, it must not be some incremental standard which would be adjusted down every decade or so. The construction of a natural gas combined cycle generation plant is a 40 year investment. The investments would not be made if there were not reasonable assurance that the investors would be able to recover their investments, plus a reasonable return.

If the "solution" to the perceived "problem" of AGW requires CO2 emissions globally to be reduced to zero, new natural gas combined cycle generators are not part of the "solution", absent carbon capture and storage. There is a lot of "silly" discussion of NG as a "bridge fuel". However, if the bridge is not long enough to permit investment recovery, the investments would not be made.