Can California Handle More Wind and Solar Energy?
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...”
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.