Keeping It Clean: California Should Use Clean Resources To Integrate Renewables

This commentary originally appeared on EDF’s California Dream 2.0 blog.

As the 8th largest economy in the world, California remains a global leader in clean tech investment, innovation and adoption of landmark climate and energy policies. What defines our success?  Our ability to try things first, set the bar high, and get policies right.

California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is a perfect example of that bold, pioneering spirit. Passed in 2011, the RPS required that 33% of electricity come from renewables by 2020 – a lofty benchmark, even by California’s standards. Along with self-generation and solar rooftop programs, California is successfully adding solar, wind, and other distributed generation to its resource portfolio.

In fact, renewables are successfully becoming a large part of daytime energy production, the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO) – the organization in charge of balancing the statewide grid – is concerned over how to make up for that energy when the sun goes down while evening energy demand spikes.  The question is: How can the CAISO reliably integrate renewables?

The CAISO is currently figuring out how to address this need for “flexible” power and will have a draft decision out on October 2nd.  Just like people prefer to take routes they know well when they drive, the CAISO is most comfortable with what they know: familiar fossil fuels. Using clean resources and demand response instead is new territory for them that will require careful orienteering.

Yet getting comfortable with the new, cleaner terrain means a less polluting, less expensive, more resilient energy future.  California passed the RPS to reduce fossil fuel consumption — and the pollution that comes with it.  If fossil fuels become the main method by which renewables are integrated, they could eliminate the emissions benefits of renewables entirely, while consumers may pay more than necessary to integrate renewable energy.

There are clean options that have been proven to work in grid operations, such as demand response – the voluntary reduction of electricity use by customers who are paid to do so when called upon.  By reducing demand at key times, demand response lowers the need for electricity production and saves money in the process. (This is an area where California can learn from East Coast states that are robustly using demand response in their electricity markets.)

EDF has actively engaged CAISO on the need for “flexible” power, and knows they are working hard to figure out how to use demand response and other clean options to integrate renewables. We have also asked CAISO to utilize existing, clean resources and to revisit this framework every few years to make sure it is as clean as it can be – all to make sure that California has time to get it right.

Leading the way isn’t always easy, but if successful, California and CAISO will show they can utilize proven resources like demand response to keep California’s energy policies clean and cost-effective, while readying the grid for high levels of renewable resources.

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