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California's Electricity Dreams Still Need Natural Gas


Already requiring 33% renewables by 2020 and 50% by 2030, California Governor Jerry Brown just signed SB 100, mandating that 100% of the state’s electricity comes from "carbon-free" sources by 2045, largely leaning on renewables like wind and solar. This truly is the Golden State’s energy challenge of a lifetime.
Renewables now account for almost 33% of California' electricity And solar power will remain the heart of California's clean energy push (particularly rooftop solar), with the state generating about 45% of all U.S. electricity that comes from that big bright yellow thing in the sky.  Today, solar is over 12% of California's electricity generation, versus just 2% back in 2013.
Yet, as overwhelmingly a natural gas- and oil-based state, the challenge put forth by California is an immense one. Even on the windiest and sunniest days, these renewables are intermittent, typically available only around 35% of the time. In literally a matter of minutes, winds can disappear or a cloud can block out the sun. For example, quite inconveniently, solar is naturally fading as an energy source when residents are returning home from work at 6 pm, right when electricity is used most.
It's a constant chore for operators to balance these intermittent resources on the grid, so it's clean and flexible natural gas that usually compensates during the lull times. Again, natural gas may come in third on the "loading order" of power behind efficiency and renewables, but gas is often deployed first because it's the most predictable and reliable of the three. This necessity to use more gas to backup wind and solar is why California's regulators have wisely forced troubled gas storage facility in the Los Angeles metro area to remain open despite public opposition.
Since the electricity crisis of 2000-2001, about 66% of new generation capacity in California has been natural gas, peaking plants to compensate for the ups and downs of renewables.
Too much wind and solar can arise unpredictably and overwhelm the grid - especially true in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when California's air conditioners aren't needed as much. Flooding the grid with too much power and not enough demand can ignite system failure, forcing operators to curtail renewable power. This "clean power" oversupply that can't be utilized has become increasingly common and problematic for a state seeking to deploy renewables at all costs. "Negative Electricity Prices Are Not A Sign Of Renewable Success."
The electricity created can be stored in batteries or other technologies and/or shared with neighboring states. A regional Western grid would be of great benefit for solving this problem, but California itself just dropped a billto eliminate barriers between the 38 independent systems across the Western states. Ouch. 
And although California has mandated that utilities install energy storage, the technologies aren't developed enough to displace more reliable natural gas. Indeed, the "battery storage revolution" that has been promised to us has been "imminent" for not just decades, but really centuries. "Count Alessandro Volta, was the person who built the first electric battery. He showed it to Napoleon, who was the emperor at the year of 1800."
To illustrate: although they are now being pushed as the inevitable kings of the future, don't forget that electric cars have actually drastically devolved. Today, electric cars are less than 1% of all U.S. cars, compared to 38% way back in 1900. I'd advise against assuming that our energy future belongs to a technology that has already been discarded.
Batteries today store just several hours worth of electricity, so gas plants as the backup will remain essential. As such, California has been rethinking the way in which gas plants are compensated so subsidies for renewables don't make them uneconomical and retire prematurely. As Commissioner Liane M. Randolph, of the California Public Utilities Commission, says: "In daily life, the critical role of these gas plants often goes unnoticed."
The "resource adequacy" market to help ensure grid reliability is key as well. Power plants get payments for being available to ensure the grid can function reliably, but some argue they aren't enough. This has created a debate over one of Calpine’s gas plants that got extra payments from grid operators to remain open.
But, let's be as clear as possible for a state where policymakers enjoy life in a fantasy world: more natural gas isn't a bad thing. In fact, thanks to gas, the U.S. is cutting carbon emissions faster than any other nation on Earth. More gas is the main reason why CO2 emissions in the U.S. power sector are at their lowest levels since 1985.
And California's 100% "carbon-free" target doesn't mandate only renewable energy. Carbon capture technologies will be increasingly instrumental in meeting climate change goals, given the sheer irreplaceably of fossil fuels around the world. I'm a huge fan of localized, smaller-scale solutions such as distributed power but these will indeed bring about more options for natural gas use.
We do know that California needs better planning: "California has a 100% clean energy goal, but not the laws to get it there." The closures of nuclear San Onofre Generating Station in Southern California and Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in Northern California will surely make "carbon-free" goals that much harder. My Forbes colleague Michael Shellenberger just reportedon California's mistake of obsessing over renewables, not nuclear power, which has drastically increased costs and blocked climate change goals.
Ultimately, the future for renewables remains more challenging than most may realize. Contrary to what you keep hearing, they simply won't be handed the energy future. Beyond the ongoing erosion of sweet spots, where incremental builds for wind and solar become more difficult (many of their best utility-scale locations have already been picked), the increasing need for upkeep will slow new builds as well. Mostly going unreported of course, "the North American wind industry will reach a turning point in three years when the industry begins to spend more on operations and maintenance than it spends on installing new wind turbines."
These are underrated problems for more renewables not just in California but nationally. Indeed, natural gas remains a safe bet in California for as far as we model.


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