California Faces Challenges in Energy Diversification and Maintaining Grid Stability as It Phases Out Natural Gas

published: 2019-10-10 0:30 | editor: | category: News

California is currently in the process of making a full transition to green energies by 2045. However, the aggressive efforts by the state and local governments in moving toward this goal have also raised the urgent issue of finding ways to make up for the loss of power generation resulting from the decommissioning of fossil fuel power stations during the interim period. California’s grid is still mainly supplied by electricity generated by natural gas power plants. Retiring them is necessary for the state to reach its target of using 100% renewable and carbon-free energies by 2045. Thus, the state government and local authorities now face the pressing challenge of devising strategies that can maintain the stability of electricity supply.

In September 2018, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed a major bill mandating that the state will source 60% of its utility electricity from renewables by 2030 and then realize a zero-carbon grid by 2045.

Since this bill came into effect, localities across the state have started to implement policies that intend to substantially cut their carbon emissions. This July, Berkeley’s municipal government passed an ordinance bill that prohibits the installation of natural gas lines in new residential buildings. The rule, in turn, will force the phase-out of common gas appliances such as water heaters and stoves. While Berkeley becomes the first US city to ban the usage of natural gas for new homes, other municipalities in California including Menlo Park, San Jose, Santa Monica, and San Francisco have pushed through similar measures as well. There is a strong possibility that other cities in the country will follow suit in the future.

The phasing out of natural gas in California’s urban centers carries a lot of significance because the state is a major base for economic activities and technological development in the US. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain an indispensable part of the state’s energy supply. Data from California Energy Commission reveal that 34% of the state’s utility electricity production in 2018 was derived from natural gas. Renewable energies, hydro power, coal, and nuclear power accounted for 29%, 15%, 13% and 9% of in-state generation respectively for the same year. Even though the state government has adopted a gradual approach to shutting down natural gas power plants, the utilities operating in the region are under pressure to devise cost-effective strategies to compensate for the shortfalls in electricity supply.

(Source: California Energy Commission)

In early September of this year, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) recommended postponing the closure of four natural gas power plants situated along the coast of Southern California (i.e. respectively located at Los Alamitos, Huntington Beach, Redondo Beach, and Ormond Beach). These coastal power plants, which not only cause air pollution but also harm marine life by drawing seawater for cooling, are set to retire in 2020. However, the PUC now believes that they need to keep operating for three more years in order avoid the possibility of electricity shortages in the summer of 2021. The prospect of using solar photovoltaics to offset the generation loss that would result from the decommissioning of the four natural gas power plants is deemed as being impractical because solar panels stop producing electricity after sunset. Furthermore, electricity demand remains quite high in California during the evenings of the summer months.

There are opinions arguing that the PUC’s assessment is too pessimistic, and that there is still time to address potential electricity shortages. Additionally, the anxiety over the tightening of electricity supply has yet to be supported by any concrete evidence. On the other hand, such worries are not without justification; and the PUC’s recommendation has some merit. Jan Smutny-Jones, chief executive of California’s Independent Power Producers Association, warned that the government will lose popular support for the transition to green energies if electricity supply becomes unreliable.

Analysts advise against focusing on just solar                         

In 2018, Clean Air Task Force, a think tank specializing in energy policies, published a report on the associated costs of California’s campaign to become carbon neutral. According to this study, California will need to store 9.6 million MWh of surplus electricity produced during the summer months if renewables represent 80% of the state’s energy mix. Moreover, the state could spend as much as US$363 billion on energy storage infrastructure in order to accomplish the goal of using renewables for 100% of its utility electricity production.

Presently, the total capacity of California’s energy storage infrastructure is around 150,000MWh. Much of the state’s storage capability is in the form of pumped-storage hydroelectricity (also known as pumped hydroelectric energy storage). Utility-scale storage systems based on lithium-ion batteries still account for a very small portion of the state’s total storage capacity. Besides encouraging the installation of photovoltaic and other types of renewable generation systems, the state government will also have to pay more attention to energy storage solutions and grid management strategies so that there will be an ample and reliable supply of electricity in the future.

Data from the PUC show that California is now the leading state in the US in rooftop solar installations, rising from 28MW in 2007 to 1,891MW in 2018. Mark Specht, an energy analyst based in Oakland, pointed out that the state government so far has been focusing on just solar. More efforts are needed in developing other alternative sources of generation such as wind and hydro power. In his view, the state has to diversify its energy options in order to keep its electricity supply stable.

 (This article is an English translation of news content provided by EnergyTrend’s media partner TechNews. Photo credit: Pixabay.)

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