Driving the Last Spike: Linking California’s Electric Grid to Extend Clean Energy’s Reach

East_and_West_Shaking_hands_at_the_laying_of_last_rail_Union_Pacific_Railroad_-_Restoration“When the connection was finally made the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific engineers ran their engines up until their pilots touched. Then the engineers shook hands and had their pictures taken and each broke a bottle of champagne on the pilot of the other’s engine and had their picture taken again.” 

          –  Alexander Topence on the scene in Promontory,                   Utah in 1869 after Western governors drove the                    “last spike” of the Transcontinental Railroad.

These are good times for clean energy in California. A decade of visionary policymaking, a motivated private sector, and copious sunshine have joined together to reduce the cost of solar in the Golden State by 90 percent.

We already produce more solar energy than any other state. And thanks to a new law Governor Jerry Brown signed last month, SB 350 (De León), California has committed itself to yet another ambitious clean energy goal: 50 percent of electricity in the nation’s most populous state will come from renewables by 2030. Solar is a central part, among others, of California’s strategy to meet this new target.

Amid all this optimism, fast solar growth poses challenges as well. A lot of it has to do with timing.

Timing is not always on solar’s side

CAISO Renewable Breakdown Oct 15

Source: California ISO Daily Renewables Watch for October 28, 2015

The California Independent System Operator (ISO), the agency in charge of operating the state’s electric grid, keeps track of electricity production and demand.

This is what the renewable energy supply picture looked like on a recent October day. The golden bell curve represents solar generation. On that day, solar energy production peaked at 12:46 PM.

But energy demand didn’t peak until four hours later, at 6:46 PM, when people started coming home from work and school, and turning on their devices as the sun was beginning to set. The solar supply curve is out of synch with the way Californians use energy.

Increasingly, the ISO is finding that solar generation in California is so high during the daytime hours that we are unable to use all of it. The agency calls this excess, unused renewable energy supply “curtailment.” Its analysis suggests that if the state had adopted a target of 40 percent renewables by 2030 then some 15 percent of the incremental increased capacity would be curtailed, or essentially wasted.

So, we’re facing a situation of potentially losing a substantial amount of our clean energy. What’s the solution?

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How California can avoid wasting its clean energy

Well, Californians could change the way we consume energy. In fact, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) helped utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission develop time-of-use pricing. This innovative pricing mechanism rewards people who shift some of their electricity use to times of day when clean resources are available and electricity is cheaper, bringing supply and demand into closer alignment. Better energy storage options coming to market soon will help too.

But there’s another step we should take that will help on a massive scale and speed the transition to clean energy in other states. It’s time to link the ISO with other grid systems in the West, like PacifiCorp, which delivers 70 million megawatt-hours of power per year to 1.8 million customers in six states (California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming).

Linking the ISO with PacifiCorp is a win-win for customers in both networks. For California, it provides a market for millions of megawatts of excess solar generation (in red), which would otherwise be wasted.

ISO PacifiCorp 1

Source: Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc.

For PacifiCorp, where states are grappling with how to reduce carbon emissions under the federal Clean Power Plan, imports of low-cost, California solar could allow them to replace dirty energy supplies while still meeting customer demand.

ISO PacifiCorp 2

Source: Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc.

What’s more, there are financial benefits for customers in both networks. Over 20 years, Energy and Environmental Economics estimated that ISO and PacifiCorp customers would see savings of $3.4 to $9.1 billion. Meanwhile, workers will benefit from new jobs and opportunity in a solar industry that can continue to grow.

Avoiding concerns

So what are the concerns? There are a few, but we can take reasonable steps to avoid them. Let’s look at some of the biggest ones:

  • Electric grid stability. Californians remember the Enron collapse and rolling blackouts of 2000-2001. We learned a lot from those times about the risks of unfettered deregulation. Our stable and reliable electric grid today is a product of our recovery from those dark days. While grids in other regions have joined together, Californians have, understandably, wanted to go slowly and get it right. As we link up with other states we need to make sure we follow the lessons learned from other regional balancing areas and don’t replicate the mistakes of the past. Furthermore, joining markets with other states will actually enhance stability in California, ensuring we have access to resources we need for the times when heat waves, disasters, or other forces cause our demand to exceed supply.
  • Keep dirty coal out. Californians have made it abundantly clear: we want clean energy. Some other western states have more dirty energy in their mix. Our goal in uniting grids is to expand access to clean energy in those places. The expectation is that more clean energy will lower its cost and reduce demand for dirty energy everywhere. The evidence to date from eight months of operating an energy imbalance market with PacifiCorp shows coal sales represent less than 0.05 percent of dispatch. This data suggests coal imports would be minimal in this newly constructed market. But just in case, we need to structure the linked market to make sure no significant amounts of dirty energy inadvertently enter California.

We think these hurdles are surmountable. Done right, the customer, business, and environmental opportunities of joining forces are too good to pass up.

Just like the engineers and politicians who met in Promontory 146 years ago, it’s time for us to drive the “last spike” for energy security, and recognize again that when states and people work together, everyone benefits. All aboard!

Photo source: Wiki Commons

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