California and Texas are identical! Sounds weird, but this is true. They may be worlds apart in their politics and climate policies, but one thing they have in common: they both can’t withstand extreme weather. The power grid in both states has left its people stranded in the dark, whether it is the most recent cold streak in Texas or heatwaves in the Golden State, which comes almost every year.
How can California get out of this problem for good?
Rolling blackouts have already become a new norm to the state as utilities shut down the grid in an attempt to avoid sparking fires during hot, dry weather. It also occurs when residents crank up their ACs to beat the heat but unfortunately, the demand outpaces the available power supply. California simply fails to satisfy those several thousand megawatts of peak demand on a particular hot evening. This is the moment when solar energy also fades away.
Renewables, like solar and wind, are a growing share of the grid’s generation but supplies can drop as sunsets and wind stop blowing. Secondly, California relies heavily on dispatchable generation and imports to meet the sudden surge demand on the state’s power grid. Dispatchable generation refers to sources of electricity that can be dispatched on demand at the request of power grid operators, like a natural gas plant.
So, what is wrong with a Natural Gas Power Plant? They are a clean source of energy.
Compared to coal, natural gas produces less global warming emissions and air pollution. But the issue is that natural gas power plants still produce a significant amount of air pollution, and that’s a problem.
California aims to decarbonize the power supply by 2045. In such scenario, these dispatchable plants must be replaced with variable renewable energy sources. Still, these peaked plants are still needed to meet demand when enough solar and wind power isn’t available. However, the truth is that the expansion of renewable power like solar and wind and tightening climate policy already make it less attractive.
Especially, solar power squeezes them out of operating during much of the day. On the other hand, ramping them up and down quickly increases wear and tear. Furthermore, a very high maintenance cost and very little utilization throughout the year or you can say during the lifetime makes them not feasible.
California’s dispatchable capacity has been dropping over the past decade even as variable wind and solar capacity increased more than sixfold. Solar PV + Storage systems are already replacing gas peakers, and we should continue to do so in the near future.
Two more aspects are worthy of discussion, one being that California mostly imports power from gas peaks of neighboring states during extreme weather but while extreme weather can cover multiple states. Secondly, like the Golden State, other states are also moving towards decarbonizing their power grid, so in the near future, they may also like to close their peaked plants, like California. A typical gas peak plant that runs just a few hours a year is expensive insurance.
Emerging as an integral part of the solar industry can be the solution. We are talking about a storage option clubbed with the solar PV plant. Batteries that store excess power during the day to meet that net peak in the evening are an obvious alternative, but costly.
Still, a recent study contends a massive expansion of local solar plus storage could actually save California ratepayers $120 billion over 30 years. By 2035, large installations of distributed PV will be seen and by 2050, significant utility-scale solar + storage will be deployed. Wind generation deployment will also help meet the load of the state with clean electricity.
For now, RE + Storage is the only way out to help California achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. A microgrid and community solar farm instead of a new peak plant and substation. This way California can not only eliminate carbon emissions but can also preserve the reliability of the state’s grid.
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