Guest Editorial: A Long-Term Vision Will Help California Decarbonize Faster and Cheaper

By Published On: November 23, 2021

SB 100 set clean power goals for California, providing a clear and bold statement of the state’s commitment to global leadership toward a clean energy future by 2045. To achieve these goals, however, California requires an equally decisive and bold long-term plan to transition to tomorrow’s energy fleet.

The biggest threat to California’s decarbonization goals is not technology, but the failure to plan for and build the right technologies for the energy transition. A glaring example of this gap is Governor Gavin Newsom’s issuance last summer of an emergency proclamation to address potential capacity shortfalls caused by another year of drought in California. This proclamation focused only on the most immediate needs, highlighting the need for critical long-term planning.

Setting annual targets or milestones for bringing carbon-free resources online over the next several years will ensure that clean, efficient, flexible, and reliable resources are available to meet California’s energy needs, in place of expensive and high-emitting fossil-powered emergency resources.

The problems we are encountering on the road to 100% renewables are no surprise. A decade ago, the California Independent System Operator’s highlighted them when it introduced its “duck curve.” The four main issues captured by this famous illustration that remain unresolved are: the belly (low net-load and excess solar), neck (long sustained ramps), head (net-load peaks after sunset), and feathers (variable output and forecast error).

To slim the duck’s belly and achieve its ambitious goals, California must plan for a balanced fleet of diverse resources with diverse capabilities.  A mix of resources with complementary capabilities also will also lead to a reliable grid, less susceptible to blackouts caused by extreme weather events.

California must integrate both the renewable fuels available—hydro, solar, wind— and the tools needed to supplement these resources, like batteries and combustion-fired assets using sustainable fuel sources, to ensure grid reliability. Although Californians continue to see new installations of renewable energy, the expansion has not been adequately matched with supplemental services needed for maintaining reliable energy, highlighted by the proliferation of solar and reliability challenges just after sunset and during unexpected weather events.

How to meet California’s ambitious goals

A balanced portfolio requires the complement of flexible and dispatchable resources with wind, solar, and hydro production. Although most hydro resources are flexible, dispatchable, and able to serve peak load, they are still subject to drought conditions and, over the long term, require additional complementary flexible resources

Flexible capacity means resources that are able to do one or more of the following:

  1. Start, stop, and ramp up quickly and often to manage real-time renewable variability.
  2. Run at low output levels to allow more renewable resource production without loss of generating efficiency that can unnecessarily increase emissions.
  3. Consume energy during low demand and excess intermittent resources for use later during net-load peaks after sunset, such as short-duration batteries.
  4. Dispatch energy for several days without recharging for extreme multi-day events. For example, hydrogen created from excess solar output that can be stored for longer periods of time and provide longer dispatches.

To enable utilities to start planning for and maintain adequate firm capacity during the transition to 100% decarbonization, state policymakers and regulatory bodies need to work collaboratively to develop a clear long-term plan to ensure a diverse fleet of resources, including flexible combustion-based generation, capable of converting to sustainable fuels for power generation.

Not only will planning a balanced fleet of resources with the right capabilities ensure California reaches its clean energy goals but can also help the state to get there five years faster, with less emissions and potentially less expense. This is because a balanced fleet will allow low-cost renewables to produce more energy, minimize the social costs of carbon emissions, and require the fewest resources to maintain reliability.  

How fast California reaches the 100% clean energy finish line is still to be determined and a recommended pathway is provided in more detail in the report Path to 100 % Renewables in California.

Karl Meeusen, Legislative and Regulatory Policy at Wärtsilä’s Energy, karl.meeusen@wartsila.com. Karl spent nearly 15 years developing energy policy in California at both the CPUC and the CAISO.

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