Will Wind and Solar Electricity Generation Save California?

Wind machines and solar panels against the sunset

Answer: Highly Expensive and Highly Unlikely

We live in a fantastical world where many Californians feel a carbon-free, wind and solar generated electrical grid is not only possible but in our near future. In an article published in City Journal written by Mark Mills titled, “Transition to Nowhere”, the author discusses the impossibility of a solar and wind electric grid for California and ultimately the nation. The points made in this article cannot be ignored when looking at electricity generation from all perspectives.

As Californians we are already subject to public safety power shut offs and rolling blackouts. Will the need for these decrease over time? And, if not, how will we continue to power lifesaving equipment, avoid food waste, and continue to enjoy creature comforts when blackouts last days in a potential all-electric reality? There are sustainable, clean energy sources available now that can not only bridge the gap but can continue to supply reliable energy beyond our wind and solar future. Propane technologies are available to power your entire home without being reliant on the electric grid.

Along with providing information from the above listed article, we will discuss California’s current energy mix and how consumer electricity pricing has and will continue to increase over time.

Can California Build Enough Battery Storage to Power the State?

“In August of 2021, California brought online the world’s biggest-ever grid-scale batter, located at Moss Landing.” The solution to a carbon-free future seems simple, build enough of these batteries to power the state and, eventually, the nation. But, is it that easy? Mark Mills discusses three basic constraints that work against this theory:

  1. The time it takes to build anything like this to scale: Just days after the battery at Moss Landing went online, heat and fire detection systems automatically shut it down, activated sprinkler systems, and dispatched local fire departments. Fortunately, while nothing dire happened, potential fires with lithium batteries must be taken seriously because they are self-fueling and almost impossible to suppress. Mark’s article was written on October 20, 2021 and as of publication 75% of the battery at Moss Landing was still inoperable. While engineers will find fixes to these types of potential hazards over time, it may not happen as quickly as some would like.
  2. The issue of scale itself, how many batteries it really would take to power an entire society on electricity produced by wind/solar alone and at what cost: “How many facilities like the $400 million Moss Landing battery will California, the U.S., and ostensibly the world need?” According to Mark, California would need about 100 Moss Landing facilities to store enough power should the wind and sun be out of commission for several days. Despite what many believe, the sun does not always shine nor does the wind always blow in California. What if the wind and sun decided to hold out just one more day? That is another $10 million in additional battery storage. Also, the batteries being built and planned today will not stand the same lifespan as the conventional grid, requiring an additional $100 million in investment to replace them. The claim that solar/wind generation and battery storage has cost parity with conventional grid methods is despaired by these numbers. In actuality, “to match the energy produced by one conventional machine each year, and for years on end, you need at least two solar/wind machines, plus the batteries. That combination puts the sun/wind/battery option at roughly triple the capital cost of grid-scale conventional power.”
  3. Where will we get all the materials to build such batteries: these batteries are material intensive. It takes about 50 pounds of batteries to hold the same amount of energy in one pound of oil. To get the materials required for 50 pounds of batteries means mining 25,000 pounds of raw materials. “Building enough Moss Landing-class systems for 12 hours of storage for the U.S. alone would entail mining materials equal to what would be needed for two centuries’ worth of production of batteries for all the world’s smartphones. That doesn’t count the additional minerals needed for the transition to electric cars or the ‘energy minerals’ needed to build the wind and solar machines themselves. It’s a little-noted fact that using wind/solar/battery machines to deliver the same amount of energy as conventional hydrocarbon machines requires about 1,000 percent more primary materials for fabrication.” A recent study from the Geological Survey of Finland concluded the demand for materials like copper, nickel, graphite, and lithium needed for a transition to a solar/wind/battery society would exceed known global reserves.

 

Sky-high Electricity Prices

Imagine the cost that would trickle down to consumers if a scenario such as the one discussed above really came to scale. Recently in Europe ratepayers saw increases in electricity prices because the sun and wind were not cooperating. Instead, grid-operators had to rush to purchase fuel and fire up old gas- and coal-powered plants. The same can be seen in California. The electric grid operator in California (CAISO) sought an emergency order from the Biden Administration in early September 2021 to allow our state to operate natural gas power plants to produce electricity without restrictions for 60 days. This is because we are facing a shortfall of electricity equivalent to powering 2.6 million homes during peak hours. This is already happening when wind/solar generated electricity is at a mere 22% of California’s energy mix. This percentage also includes wind and solar electricity generated outside of the state and imported in. What will happen when we are attempting to generate 100% of California’s electricity from wind and solar?

Again, from Mark’s article, “Of course it’s reasonable to expect researchers to discover superior chemical concoctions, but it takes many years to go from discovery to industrial-scale production. The first Tesla sedan, circa 2012, didn’t show up for more than three decades after the Nobel-winning lithium discovery in the mid-1970s (by an Exxon researcher). And yes, lithium batteries will become cheaper over time, perhaps dropping in cost by half, as enthusiasts claim. But for systemic grid-scale storage to be affordable, as one detailed analysis observed, we need to see nearly 100-fold cost reductions, which are nowhere on the horizon.”

This year, electricity prices rose 7.5% over rates in 2020.

 

Where Does California’s Energy Mix Come from Currently?

As of the latest data published in 2019, nearly 28% of California’s electricity was imported from other states. Thirty-four percent of California’s total electricity mix was produced by natural gas-powered plants (this includes imports) whereas 22% of the total mix is from wind and solar generation. California still utilizes electricity generated from non-renewable sources to the tune of 68%.

CAISO is an independent entity that manages the flow of electricity on high voltage power lines and operates the wholesale energy market in California. It is supposed to “ensure the open and fair access to electric transmission relying on California’s infrastructure” to other western states. Basically, CASIO allows western states to use California’s transmission lines to transport electricity purchased by one state to another. Except, when CASIO and the Federal Regulatory Commission (FERC) deem that electricity is needed more by California, California is allowed to “block” that electricity at the border. In the summer of 2021, FERC allowed CASIO to do just that. Arizona purchased hydropower from Oregon to use during its hottest months of the year. Because California didn’t have enough power during this time either, FERC approved changes to an already existing tariff despite opposition by the Arizona Corporation Commission and electric utilities in Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon.

As stated in a press release by the Arizona Corporation Commission, “When utilities in California don’t have enough power to meet demand this summer, the approved tariff changes will effectively allow CAISO to cancel contracts and block energy at the border, which will allow CAISO to repurchase for itself power ultimately destined for Arizona. This may leave Arizona’s utilities scrambling to make up for power that they had already paid for and were expecting to rely on to protect the health and safety of customers during the hottest times of the month.”

 

What Can Consumers Do About it?

It may seem difficult to solicit change when those in positions of power seem to have already counted out any other energy source aside from electricity. When many voices shout the same message though, it can turn tides. Propane consumers have the knowledge to share with policy makers that propane is a clean, energy-efficient fuel. Propane allows for energy independence, is available today, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Protect My Propane is a resource for propane consumers where you can become involved with securing energy independence. On this website you will find petitions to sign that will be sent directly to decision makers indicating you would like to preserve your right to energy independence with propane.

There are rebates available through the Western Propane Gas Association for both commercial and residential propane use; utilize these funds! When consumers use up the money designated for propane appliances and equipment it signals to decision makers that there is a want and need for other energy sources aside from electricity. Find out more about these rebate programs by contacting your local DLE branch or by visiting WPERC’s website.

Talk to your neighbors – spread the word about how an all-electric future could impact Californians. Astronomical energy prices, a consistently unreliable electric grid, and the inability to choose how you power your home or business are all potential risks to keeping with the status quo.

 

Printable Version of our DLE Winter 2022 Propane Press