California is shattering solar records. This bill could take renewable energy to the next level.
A month ago, California broke its all-time solar record, with nearly 8,800 megawatts of solar power flooding the state’s main electric grid on a Friday afternoon. The record stood until the following Wednesday, when more than 9,000 megawatts of solar powered the Golden State, according to the California Independent System Operator, which runs the grid.
That record didn’t even last 24 hours.
With the costs of solar continuing to fall, and wind still one of the cheapest sources of new electricity around, California should have no problem hitting its 50 percent clean energy target by 2030.
But getting to 100 percent — the goal floated by Senate leader Kevin de León in a bill last month — would be more complicated. That’s because solar panels only generate electricity when the sun shines, which doesn’t always match up with when people use energy. As a result, officials have increasingly been forced to shut down solar farms in the middle of the day, when they’re producing more energy than people need. At the same time, solar falls short in the evening. The sun goes down just as electricity demand goes up, forcing the state to fire up polluting, gas-fired power plants.
A new bill in the state Legislature could help solve those problems.
Introduced by Assembly member Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, the bill would create a “clean peak energy standard” for California utilities. By 2029, utilities like Southern California Edison, PG&E and SDG&E would be required to get 40 percent of their energy from clean sources during “peak demand” periods — the handful of hours each day when homes and businesses use the most energy — on at least 15 days each month.
That requirement would encourage the development of battery storage systems, which could soak up excess solar generation during the middle of the day and release that energy onto the grid after sundown, reducing the need for gas plants. The bill could also speed the adoption of energy efficiency and conservation programs that reduce electricity use during peak periods. Geothermal power plants, which are more expensive than solar and wind but provide clean electricity at all hours of the day and night, could also be a winner.
California’s push for renewable energy has been driven by a desire to limit greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, which are the primary driver of climate change. State lawmakers have set an ambitious target of reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, then 80 percent by 2050. If California is going to meet those goals, policymakers need to think about how clean energy can run the power grid without help from fossil fuels, rather than just mandating higher and higher levels of renewables, said Andrew Zingale, Assemblymember Mullin’s legislative director.
“We can’t just load up on more renewables that are happening at the middle of the day, and just keep loading up on (gas-fired) peaker plants to run at the end of the day,” Zingale said.
Is Mullin’s bill the wrong approach?
California having “too much solar” during the middle of the day is far from a crisis at this point, but it’s getting worse as more solar comes online — and officials are trying to figure out how to deal with it. Stephen Berberich, president of the California Independent System Operator, said recently the grid operator may have to “curtail,” or turn away, as much 8,000 megawatts of power at times this spring, most of it solar.
“We’ve been seeing the oversupply increasing faster than our forecast said it was going to increase,” said Steven Greenlee, a spokesperson for the independent system operator.