California producing too much solar power

California has invested heavily in recent years into expanding its solar capacity. The Golden State now sometimes produces so much solar power that it has to pay neighbouring states to accept its excess energy. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Massive solar power facilities, such as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Dessert, are leading to an excess of energy in California. (Image credit: BrightSource Energy)

California is committed to generating its electricity from the sun, wind and water, with half of the state’s power to come from renewables by 2030. Already now around a quarter comes from renewables on average.

The state also has plenty of natural gas-fired power plants to fill the gap when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. And with new ones approved for construction, California now sometimes produces more power than its citizens can consume.

10 per cent from wind and solar

Wind and solar were responsible for 10 per cent of US electricity generation in March compared to 1 per cent a decade ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Wind comprised 8 per cent of that power, while solar was equal to 2 per cent.

But California produced half of that solar total, or 1 per cent of all the electricity generated via sunlight in the US. The state is now a sustainable energy powerhouse. In mid-May, the state generated 80 per cent of its electricity from solar panels, wind turbines and hydropower, driving utility energy costs into negative territory as consumers uploaded power onto the state’s grid.

Paying, not giving away

“We’re curtailing renewable energy in the summertime months,” said Gary Ackerman, president of the Western Power Trading Forum, an association of independent power producers. “In the spring, we have to give people money to take it off our hands.”

The Los Angeles Times reported how California was paying other states to take power for a few weeks in March and May. But state officials and utility executives did not divulge how much they spent exactly.

Most analysts agree that California is more than well on its way to meet its goal of deriving half its power from renewables by 2030. In the first quarter of the year, solar and wind power production increased by 3 per cent, double the rate last year. That includes utilities constructing vast solar farms in the sun-kissed Mojave Desert and homeowners installing panels on their roofs.

The price of those facilities and panels has declined by nearly three-quarters, according to California officials. Solar power in the now state costs around as much to generate as a natural gas plant and half the cost of a nuclear facility, U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

Trump: US can’t rely on renewable

Some have criticised renewable energy for the surplus of power.

Earlier this month, after he pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, Trump said the country could not rely on renewable energy.

“We need all forms of available American energy, or the country will be at grave risks of brownouts and blackouts,” he said. “Our businesses will come to a halt in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.”

But solar and wind defenders dismissed the president’s views as reflecting a key constituency rather than reflecting science.

“While a convenient myth for the fossil-fuel industry, this is nonsense,” wrote David Hochschild, a member of the California Energy Commission. “Clean energy is good both for the grid and the bottom line. That’s why the private sector here at home is now helping make it happen. Google, Walmart, General Motors, Facebook and Apple have all committed to using 100 per cent.”

Green energy not to blame for oversupply

He noted that Denmark and Germany have generated nearly all their energy from renewable sources but their grid had experience around 24 minutes of blackouts annually compared to U.S. consumers who experience ten times more outage.

California State Senate Leader Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat, has proposed mandating that California reach its goal of producing 50 per cent of its electricity sustainability in 2025 and expanding that mandate to 100 per cent renewables by 2045.

He wanted he state to double down on wind and solar, not let utilities blame green energy for too much supply.

“I want to make sure we don’t have two different pathways,” de Leon said.

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