California’s Grid is Weaning Itself off Fossil Fuels
As the Trump administration signals more and more clearly that it intends to carry the torch for fossil fuels, it’ll be up to individual states to bear the renewable banner. In all likelihood it will fall to California, long at the forefront of renewable energy development, to be the United States’ example of how renewable energy can replace fossil fuels.
Which makes it especially good news that California is making impressive progress on its renewable energy goals so far this year.
That’s the take-away from a KCETLink analysis of figures provided by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages the electrical power grid for most of California.
According to those figures, about 18.7 percent of the electrical power that flowed through CAISO’s grid in January and February this year came from renewable sources. That’s up from 17.2 percent at this time last year.
That’s good news, because California has a couple of ambitious renewable energy targets to hit. State law — the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard or RPS — requires that California utilities get 33.3 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and 50 percent by 2030.
That target may make a one percent increase from last year not seem like much. But January and February are very slow months for renewable energy production; the sun isn’t out for very long each day, and California tends to be windier in spring and summer than it is in the first months of the year.
In other words, an increase in renewable energy production in winter very likely means a significantly larger increase once the whole year’s data is in. For instance, according to the California Energy Commission, renewable energy supplied 27 percent of California’s energy consumption in 2016. That’s significantly higher than CAISO’s 17 percent figure for last January and February, which means the state’s wind and solar power facilities kicked out a lot more than that during spring and summer to bring the year-long figure up.
Production of renewable energy is up in absolute terms as well. The state’s renewable energy plants pumped 6,454,796 megawatt-hours into the grid in the first two months of the year, up from 5,932,484 in the first two months of 2016.
That’s an increase of more than 500,000 megawatt-hours, about as much energy as the gas-fired Magnolia Power Plant in Burbank would produce if it ran at full capacity for those same two months.
For CAISO’s purposes, renewable energy sources, as defined by the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law, include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and biogas, and small hydroelectric power. Big dams that generate more than 30 megawatts are counted under their own category. (More on that in a moment.)
The CAISO data isn’t all good news. According to the CAISO figures, Californians served by the agency’s grid also used about 500,000 megawatt-hours more energy in January and February than they did at the same time last year, an increase due in part to this season’s barrage of cold storms.
But before you curse the weather gods, keep in mind that those storms did the state a favor as well: they filled the state’s power-generating reservoirs, allowing hydroelectric plants to more than double their production compared to this time last year. As a result of that, the state’s fossil fuel burning plants were able to cut their output by around 22 percent.
It’s important to remember that CAISO’s figures don’t tell the whole story of renewables in California. For one thing, a big chunk of the state isn’t served by CAISO’s grid. Public utilities in California — including LADWP with its 1.4 million customers — aren’t part of CAISO’s grid, and are thus not included in the figures. CAISO also doesn’t measure power generated by rooftop and other small solar, so that power only shows up in this data indirectly, by reducing the total amount of power used.