For a Moment, 50+ Percent of CA’s Energy Came From Solar

April 18, 2018 | 11:19 am
Photo: Recurrent Energy
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

On March 4, 2018, solar in California broke a record. Then, on the 5th, it broke another one.

In fact, virtually every day brings new headlines about solar energy’s progress in California and around the world, and solar records are being broken with laudable frequency. Record installation levels, record levels of electricity generation, record investment in solar….

For solar, a whole lot of signs are pointing up.

California: Another solar record (and another, and…)

Spring is a great time for solar, and a great time for solar records. The sun is high and temperatures aren’t yet at summer levels (and solar panels actually like the cooler temps). That makes for excellent solar electricity generation.

The milder temperatures also mean that spring (and fall) are when electricity demand is generally lowest. A stronger numerator (solar production) and lower denominator (energy demand) can make a record-breaking combination.

And, yup, those factors combined to knock it out of the park in California yet again in March, when at one point in time large-scale solar alone met 49.95% of the bulk electricity needs in the territory of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO, which covers 80% of California). Add in what rooftop solar took care of, and that 49.95% figure grows to well over half of electricity needs being met by solar.

An impressive tally—without even taking rooftop solar into account

But wait, there’s more: The very next day, all that solar added up to the largest solar peak to date in the CAISO territory, reaching 10,411 megawatts (10 million kilowatts) for large-scale solar (and a few thousand more megawatts for rooftop).

If that were all on rooftops (it’s not) and composed of typical rooftop residential systems, we’d be talking the equivalent of almost 2 million solar home systems worth of solar capacity.

Both of those records were for just a moment, but both are also a testament to the incredible growth solar has experienced in California, the number one state for installed solar capacity. (They also underscore the wisdom of strengthening the electric connections between California and its neighbors so that all of that solar can be put to good use.)

US: Record solar growth in official 2017 results

At the level of the country as a whole, the newly released official 2017 government stats on electricity from the US Energy Information Administration said a lot about solar’s progress, and the records it keeps shattering:

  • Electricity generation from solar, large and small, hit a new record, leaping 41% from 2016’s tally.
  • Solar accounted for a record 1.9% of electricity generation last year—almost double the percentage in 2015.
  • Solar in 2017 generated the equivalent of the electricity use of more than 8.5 million typical US homes.

Another way to look at it, with the longtime fossil fuel king in mind: With coal’s declining piece of the US electricity mix (from almost half in 2008 to less than 30% in 2017), the ratio of coal to solar has fallen from more than 2000:1 to less than 16:1 (Yup, another record). Not there yet, but that sure looks like progress.

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

World: Solar grows to record levels—and grows more than coal, gas, and nuclear… combined

And then there’s the global picture, and records broken in terms of new solar capacity and new investment. A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance looks at renewable energy investments across the world, and finds a whole lot good happening in solar.

The opening lines of the whole document capture the solar-centric excitement that the numbers provoke (emphasis added):

Solar power rose to record prominence in 2017, as the world installed 98 gigawatts of new solar power projects, more than the net additions of coal, gas and nuclear plants put together. The solar build-out represented 38% of all the net new generating capacity added (renewable, fossil fuel and nuclear) last year.

Think about that for a moment: Once you take retirements into account, as you should, we got more new solar last year than new coal + new gas + new nuclear.

All told, non-hydro renewables accounted for 61 percent of net power generation capacity added in 2017 worldwide, a record, and a consistently growing (and record-breaking) portion of both global power capacity and global power generation.

Source: Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2018

For solar, UNDP/BNEF found, China was a big piece of 2017’s progress, “…with some 53GW installed (more than the whole world market as recently as 2014), and solar investment of $86.5 billion, up 58%…” Solar investment, though, grew in both developed (17%) and developing (41%) countries.

And more…

Recent tidings have also brought news of record numbers for solar purchases by US corporations, a new US solar panel manufacturing facility in the works in Florida, and a proposal for a record-breaking battery as part of a hefty proposed solar farm in California.

There are caveats with each of those tidbits, or uncertainties, or, for the US, ways that the current administration or state policies could mess things up.

But taken together these stories paint a picture of a sector continuing to do what we need it to. Solar is on the move, across the country and across the world.

It’s clearly a technology that feels that records were meant to be broken.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.