Renewable energy confronts reality in California

Millions of homes in California are enduring rolling black outs. The power system operator acknowledged that as demand spiked, due to high temperatures and AC demand – they lost 1 gigawatt of wind energy and nearly 1/2 gigawatt of a conventional power plant.

Peak energy use occurs late in the day – when solar power production is in decline relative to peak demand. Related – the internal resistance of solar panels goes up in high temperatures. From personal experience, I lose up to 10% of potential solar array power production during extreme heat events versus “normal” temperatures.

Because solar and wind cannot be “revved” up on demand, like conventional power plants, the utilities have to reduce demand by shutting off power to customers.

This is a well known engineering problem –  one that California  pretends does not exist. This week reality and physics intervened and they discovered that it does actually exist. Yesterday, Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged that California’s heavy reliance on renewable energy is a significant factor in their current rolling shutdowns.

  • Choices include back up plants that can be revved up to meet demand
  • Building energy storage systems to deliver electricity after produced by solar or wind
  • Possibly adding more solar and wind – but note that in a unlikely but hypothetical case of clouds everywhere and no wind, the renewable energy production is a limit approaching zero. In that worst case, you’d need to build a (limit approaching) infinite amount of solar and wind to supplement. This is also an extremely expensive solution.

Del Chiaro said that better storage for solar energy is the key to preventing the problem of power blackouts in the future. If everyone had a solar power battery, she said, they could switch to that as the sun sets, relieving pressure on the power grid. The technology for this is there, she said — a battery to store solar power is the same as the battery in an electric car.

But producing that solar storage is costly.“It’s certainly the case that battery storage, while it’s advancing and costs are declining, is still far more costly to provide that kind of backup generation than to provide backup generation from gas plants that are already built and serving the grid,” Sexton said.

Source: Solar energy feeling the heat as Bay Area faces blackouts – SFChronicle.com

It’s not just costs – which are quite large for the foreseeable future. It is also the time it will take to manufacture and site battery systems.

Energy storage is essential with renewable energy systems whose output fluctuates greatly and often with no predictability (solar and wind, for example). The amount of battery power required to store sufficient energy is phenomenal and will take many, many years of manufacturing and facilities construction to implement. Grid-sized battery systems will likely require large land parcels too, just as solar power requires orders of magnitude more land than that required by coal, gas, oil or nuclear power plants.

These problems can likely be solved – eventually. But we are not there yet. And politicians who proclaim we can eliminate most existing energy infrastructure within 15 years are lying and if we follow them, are setting ourselves up for some very bad situations in the near term. Consider it is taking California 25 years just to build part of its high speed rail network.

Update:  The California Governor, who has acknowledged their state’s renewable energy policy is a major factor in rolling black outs has been advised by political analysts to deflect blame by saying it is the fault of PG&E, which even they realize is not responsible for this. This is why politics does not work.  Politics is  not about doing what delivers the best results for all – its mostly about assigning blame, whether deserved or not. More on the renewables reliable power supply problem here.

Note – I am not anti-renewables. My own home is powered by solar PV. I do my best to exist in the reality-based world, and not the virtual worlds of grand ideas and computer models. Solving virtual problems is easy – solving real problems in the real world is hard.  Electrical power engineers in my former IEEE Chapter meetings said the optimal (including costs) renewable strategy is near 25% renewables, 75% other sources (coal, gas, hydro, nuclear). Above 25%, we need to build additional backup sources and energy storage when the renewables are not generating and this leads to significant costs . Typical US homes average 30 kwh of electricity per day. That is a prodigious amount of electricity to store in batteries – when you consider there are over 120 million housing units in the U.S. this will likely take decades to build out if battery-based storage is the solution.

Update: Bloomberg dives in to this  and contradicts their own report:

…to a human-led climate crisis that’s producing extreme, unpredictable weather. Breakdowns across the board resulted in a power emergency that could have implications for how the state manages electricity from here on out.

On that Friday morning, grid operators weren’t panicking — yet. While the heat was certainly driving up demand, they had seen far worse days, such as in July 2006 when demand hit an all-time high of 50.3 gigawatts during a deadly heatwave.

….

Why did this happen when California has seen much hotter days, and much higher demand? Put simply, experts say, it was a problem years in the making — from killing gas plants without replacing them to designing a market that’s more focused on thwarting manipulation than incentivizing back-up generation.

Regulators, grid operators, utilities and industry experts all saw this moment coming. They just didn’t think it would get here so fast.

Blaming climate change is silly when their next paragraph explains it was not unusual.

Total power demand was less than in the past, plus many businesses remain closed (therefore not drawing power) due to the State’s pandemic policies. The problem was that California retired 9 Gigawatts of natural gas fired electrical generators during the past five years. Everyone knew this was going to occur.

California has devolved into having a having a third-world power grid.