In the contest to be the most virtuous of all the states on the “carbon-free” electricity metric, the race is on between California and New York. In 2018 California enacted a bill going by the name “SB100,” which set a mandatory target of 60% of electricity from “renewables” by 2030 (and 100% by 2045). Not to be outdone, New York responded by enacting its “Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act” in 2019, setting its own statutory targets of 70% of electricity from renewables by 2030 (and 100% by 2040).
So is any of this real? Or is it just so much posturing to show conformity with current fashions, all of which will be forgotten by the time the now-seemingly-distant deadlines approach? As to New York, I have had multiple posts (for example here and here) explaining how the supposedly mandatory goals are completely unrealistic as to both feasibility and cost, and how the people charged with achieving the goals have no idea what they are doing.
Is California any less clueless?
The short answer is “no.” However, a gaggle of “think tanks” is just out with a big Report trying to convince us otherwise. Indeed, the Report advocates that California can achieve not just its current statutory goal of 60% carbon-free electricity by 2030, but rather an even more ambitious 85% — as indicated by the headline of the press release announcing the Report, which is “Achieving 85 Percent Clean Electricity By 2030 In California.” The Report itself has the title “Reliably Reaching California’s Clean Energy Targets.” The think tanks putting their names on the Report are Energy Innovation, Telos Energy, and GridLab. The authors of the Report are identified as Derek Stenclik and Michael Welch of Telos and Priya Sreedharan of GridLab.
Also identified is a big “Technical Review Committee” of some 13 members. Do you think these people may be the experts who are going to be sure that this project gives honest technical and engineering answers as to how to achieve the ambitious goals? Don’t kid yourself. Five of the 13 are California energy bureaucrats (three from the California Energy Commission and two from the California Community Choice Association); and the rest are environmental and “green energy” advocates of various sorts, including from the Environmental Defense Fund, Vote Solar, Jas Energies, Sharply Focused and so forth. Even the few listed as “independent consultants” have backgrounds in advocacy for wind and solar energy.
And then there is this bizarre combination of “Disclaimer” and funding disclosure:
The views contained in this report do not represent the views of any of the technical review committee organizations and cannot be attributed to any single technical review committee members. This work was supported by funds from Climate Imperative.
In other words, “you can’t blame me when none of this works.” And, have you heard of the funding organization, Climate Imperative? Neither had I. But a few moments with a search engine will give you the answer. Two of the six members of the Board of Directors are Laurene Powell Jobs and John Doerr. Yes, that is the Laurene Jobs who inherited the Apple money, and the John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins who just dropped a billion on Stanford University to create a new school of “Sustainability.”
The Report is some 89 pages long, much of it couched in seemingly highly technical jargon. The goal is to persuade you that the target of 85% carbon-free electricity by 2030 can be easily achieved with full reliability. We have “models” that include all the relevant variables. We have run “stress tests” on every sort of possible extreme scenario. The following is from the blurb promoting the Report found on the Energy Innovation site:
Modeling from GridLab and Telos Energy finds California can achieve 85 percent clean energy by 2030 without compromising reliability, even under stressful conditions. . . . The technical study developed three 85 percent clean electricity by 2030 portfolios, reflecting different resource buildouts and accelerated electrification. These portfolios were tested against stressors including retiring in-state natural gas units, replacing West-wide coal with renewables and energy storage, and mimicking the August 2020 heat waves that caused rolling power outages. The study evaluated all stressors together, including stricter-than-normal import restrictions, finding the future clean grid is capable of serving load under these extreme conditions.
So the message to Californians is, invest some hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer and ratepayer money over the next eight years in complete blind faith that our models have considered everything that can go wrong. And by the way, don’t expect any kind of cost projection from us — that is beyond the scope of this project.
As readers here know, I have a simple answer to these kinds of fantasies, which is, show me the working demonstration project, even for a small town of 5000 or 10,000 people, from which we can evaluate the feasibility and cost of doing this for a large state of 40 million. Needless to say, no such thing exists.
To consider whether there is any seriousness at all behind this effort, let’s look at how the scenarios in the Report deal with two questions: (1) overbuilding of capacity, and (2) energy storage.
To its modest credit, the Report recognizes that reaching the 85% carbon-free electricity target will mean retaining a residuum of about 15% generation from natural gas. But how much wind and solar capacity will be needed to supply the remainder?
And the Report also gives at least some recognition that large amounts of storage will be required. But how much storage and at what cost?
The heart of the information addressing these questions appears in this chart from page 24:
For perspective, California’s peak electricity usage of all time hit 50.27 GW on July 24, 2006. In most recent years, the peak has been in the range of 46 – 47 GW. Current generation capacity from all sources is about 82 GW, already representing substantial overbuilding to deal with intermittency of large amounts of wind and solar. These scenarios from the Report for 2030 propose building capacity up to the range of 140 – 160 GW, or approximately three times peak usage. Natural gas capacity of about 30 GW would be almost enough to supply all of average usage, and about two-thirds of peak usage, but apparently the proposal is to keep it fully maintained and ready, but turned off about 85% of the time.
As to how much storage will be needed for these scenarios, the chart shows a range from about 20 GW in the “diverse clean resources” scenario, to about 25 GW in the “high electrification” scenario. OK, but how many gigawatt hours will you need, and how much will that cost? Even though that is far and away the most important question that must be addressed in any effort to build a primarily wind/solar/storage electricity system, you will not find that question addressed in this Report. Like the Scoping Plan of New York’s Climate Action Council, this Report is just that incompetent. (Or maybe the authors are aware of the problem and avoid addressing it because they know that addressing it would demonstrate the impossibility of the project and displease the paymasters. It’s hard to know which.). The only discussion in the Report of energy storage in gigawatt hours appears all the way on page 79, where from the context it is clear that the storage being discussed is only intended for intra-day balancing, and cannot even begin to address the seasonality of wind and solar generation.
So, what will be the cost of all of this? Building capacity to a level that is triple peak usage; keeping an entire back-up natural gas system fully-maintained but idle at least 85% of the time; and adding sufficient storage to deal with the seasonality of wind and solar? Three times the cost of the current system would seem conservative. Five times is more likely. And of course, this Report does not address the cost issue.