California Dreamin' of a Clean Electricity Grid

January 20, 2017 | 12:14 pm
Laura Wisland
Former Contributor

My daughter is almost a year old, so lately I’ve been reading a lot of books about farm animals. It’s been fun to practice animal noises, but it has also felt a little strange to teach my daughter about a lifestyle that fewer and fewer Americans experience. It’s gotten me thinking about what else in our daily lives might look different by the time my daughter is a teenager.  For instance, is everyone going to own their own car in the future? Or even drive their own car, for that matter?

I am an energy wonk, so inevitably my thoughts about the future turn to what the electricity grid will look like. The technologies that keep our lights on, heat and cool our homes, and run our appliances may look different in the next 15 to 20 years. Indeed, they will need to be different if California is going to do its part to rein in climate change and avert the catastrophic impacts of extreme heat, droughts, floods, fires, and sea level rise. Thankfully, our state passed a bill last year—Senate Bill (SB) 32—that established strong targets to dramatically cut carbon emissions: 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Source: Sharon Danke

Students learn about solar energy as they gather around a pond at a California school, with water circulated by a solar-powered pump. Source: Sharon Danks, Green Schoolyards America

In the next year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will map out a plan for how the state will achieve these critical carbon reduction targets. That plan, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, will identify on how the different economic sectors in the state, including the electricity sector, will need to evolve by 2030. Together with my climate, water, and clean vehicles colleagues at the UCS, in December 2016 we submitted details of our vision for how California can succeed in achieving the ambitious climate targets. Here are elements of my vision for the modern, upgraded, and clean energy grid:

  • Much more of our electricity will come from clean, renewable energy generation. At the end of 2015, California was satisfying about 27% of its electricity needs with renewables. By 2030, this will grow to at least 50%, thanks to SB 350, a law that California passed in 2015. The cost of renewables, especially solar PV, continues to drop, so it’s feasible that by 2030 we could rely on renewables for an even higher percentage of our electricity needs.
  • Many more buildings will host rooftop solar. There are more than 625,000 small-scale solar PV projects installed in the state, representing nearly 5 GW of generation capacity. There is no end in sight to the state’s appetite for rooftop solar, and I think it’s safe to say that by 2030, it will be hard not to spot rooftop solar panels in any city.
  • We will heat and cool many of our homes with electricity, not natural gas. A key strategy for reducing carbon emissions is reducing our reliance on natural gas. In addition to replacing gas-fired electricity generators with renewables, we need to be swapping our gas furnaces and water heaters for electric heat pumps and electric water heaters.
  • Batteries and other energy storage technologies to make the most of wind and solar power. Energy storage will help us to rely on electricity from wind and solar resources, even when the sun is shining or the wind not blowing. Tesla’s Gigafactory has begun to churn out lithium-ion batteries and there is no question that production at this scale will help to bring down the cost of this technology.
  • Appliances will be smarter about when, and when not, to run. Companies like Stem and OhmConnect are already tapping into the vast potential benefits of reducing electricity demand when the cost to generate is high, when the generation sources are dirty, or when slight adjustments in electricity demand can mimic grid reliability services traditionally provided by fossil fuels. Consumer tools, e.g. time-varying rates and programmable appliances, can help shift electricity demand towards times of the day when renewables are most plentiful (like the afternoon when solar power is at its peak).
  • Electric vehicles will be a much larger part of the vehicle fleet. Moving away from gasoline powered cars and light-duty trucks and buses and towards ones powered by clean electricity will make a dramatic dent in the carbon and air pollution that these vehicles emit today. If done the right way, EVs can actually help to integrate larger quantities of renewables.

California already has policies in place to achieve many of the carbon reduction measures I’ve described. The state has established goals for energy efficiency and at least 50% renewables through 2030, and has made increased vehicle electrification a priority. But other objectives such as installing more energy storage may need additional policy support to gain momentum so UCS is urging the CARB to pay greater attention to areas where the state still has work to do.

[Note: My UCS colleagues Adrienne Alvord and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a deep decarbonization roadmap and better transportation choices.]

I’m grateful my daughter lives in a state that is leading the transition to an electricity system that provides clean, safe, and reliable power for all of its residents. I want her to be able to recognize a solar panel and electric car as quickly as she can spot a cow or a pig from her farm books today. Anyone know of a kid song about programmable smart thermostats?