Solarising California: Getting All Those Ducks in a Row

After months of enduring overheated political rhetoric unmoored from all semblance of accuracy or practicality, it’s something of a relief to spend time in the company of solar engineers. I recently spent a relaxing two days at a conference center on the Mission Bay campus of UC San Francisco attending a meeting organized by an online industry publication called Greentech Media that tracks developments in the rapidly growing U.S. renewable energy sector. Entitled “California’s Distributed Energy Future 2017,” it drew hundreds of energy engineers, utility executives and state regulators to hear about and share over-the-horizon ideas about how to meet the technical challenges posed by the state’s ambitious “RPS” (Renewable Portfolio Standard) that calls for generating 50% of its electrical energy budget through renewably powered energy by 2030.

Solar energy is rapidly becoming a highly efficient and economical form of energy production, so much so that it is competitive even without subsidies with natural gas and far cheaper than coal and oil when their environmental liabilities are factored in. But this sudden affordability comes with its own challenges, especially how to blend the peak supply of solar energy at midday with the peak demand for energy in early evening when most people return home from work. Known in the energy industry as the “duck curve,” this mismatch of supply and demand has made for some expensive mistakes in recent times in locations where solar energy is widely deployed. On a sunny, breezy Sunday afternoon in May 2016, Germany (which currently gets a third of its energy from renewable sources) briefly encountered a situation where renewables — solar, wind, biomass and hydro — together were generating 87% of the country’s electrical needs. That sounds like an ideal situation, the fruition of the country’s ambitious push, called Energiewende, to reach 100% renewables to supply all its energy needs by 2050. But at the same time the grid was also absorbing standby power from coal- and oil-fueled plants it maintains to provide supply when renewables are not available. The combination of renewables and fossil fuels produced an overload that forced the utility to pay commercial customers to urgently use more energy in order to avoid burning out the entire system.

The engineers at the Greentech Media conference were keenly aware of the need to redesign the electrical grid and rebuild the state’s existing transmission system to meet the new requirements of intermittent sources of renewable energy like solar and wind. In both plenary sessions and hallway huddles they engaged in animated conversations about strategies to bring peak supply and demand (or demand and response in the jargon of the industry) more in sync with one another. Smart metering now being developed measures highly localized demand down to the second and uses price mechanisms to steer consumption patterns in optimal directions.

On a larger scale, improvements in energy storage are key to widespread deployment of solar. Battery prices are coming down much as solar panels began to do a decade ago, but they have a ways to go. Tesla’s Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada and another facility being built in Buffalo, New York have set lofty targets to supply batteries for hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles a year by the end of the decade, and other, more mainstream auto manufacturers are busy innovating their own battery technologies.

But there are real limits to the lithium-ion technology and the availability of lithium, whose sources are concentrated in the Andean mountains of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. As demand rises, so does competition between major industrialized nations for a highly finite resource, which in turn raises prices just when they need to fall to make batteries more affordable. Other strategies, some of which are notably non-high tech, are also under consideration. Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford, has proposed a mix of low-tech energy storage systems that includes “storage of heat in soil and water; cold in water and ice; and electricity in phase-change materials, pumped hydro, hydropower, and hydrogen.” However it is achieved, greatly improved energy storage is crucial to the widespread deployment of solar. Fortunately, there are enough incentives, both through prospective profits and legal mandates, to motivate inventors to apply their ingenuity and overcome the technical challenges.

While utilities played a prominent role among presenters at the conference, they were also the 800-pound gorillas in the auditorium, portraying their companies as being endlessly adaptable and light on their feet while privately contemplating the fearful necessity of losing weight. As public utilities they’ve had a pretty sweet deal for many years, a cost-plus arrangement that guarantees an enviable profit margin. But they face a more competitive environment going forward as California considers moving to a retail marketplace where energy providers large and small, public and private, will offer a wide menu of energy supply options to both commercial and residential customers.

Already several locales in California, starting with Marin county and the South Bay Area and spreading rapidly, have created their own Community Choice Aggregators (CCA’s) that offer everyone within their service area a higher percentage of renewables for the same or a slightly lower price than the public utility. The electricity is still supplied and billed by the utility but consumers can elect to join a 100% renewable portfolio for just a few dollars more a month and thus support the growth of locally produced solar, wind and/or other forms of renewable energy. CCA’s are forming rapidly, even in more conservative inland cities, producing anxiety among utilities that see their roles and revenue sources shrinking as communities increasingly take control of their own energy generation. But utilities are not without their own resources, not least of all political influence in Sacramento and a bankroll funded by ratepayers. Those who seek to “take back power” in their own communities will need to combine sticks and carrots to persuade utilities to cease resisting the change and establish a slimmed down but still essential role in energy production and distribution.

Engineers are not generally the types to wax visionary about big ideas. As personalities they’re more tinkerers than revolutionaries. But in their way, those who attended Greentech Media’s distributed energy conference were breaking new ground in all the ways that really matter. They were figuring out how to make big ideas work in the real world of physics and economics, with all the stubborn limitations of those disciplines. This was a group comprised largely of middle-aged white men with just a sprinkling of women and minorities. In that sense it was hardly the kind of youthful, hip, diverse gathering one has come to expect of Silicon Valley. But it was also blessedly free of the master-of-the-universe attitude that often accompanies the got-rich-quick culture of twenty-something high tech. These are people many of whom have worked all over the energy industry, from coal to oil to gas and back before alighting on renewables. They’ve been chastened by dealing with the challenges of each yet retain an admirable optimism about their collective ability to figure a way through — a workaround here, a modification there to make it all happen. Round about now, when so much seems terminally dysfunctional, we could use more of that kind of spirit.