What happens when you have too much of a good thing? Easy, you share the wealth with your neighbors. In this case that “wealth” is California solar power, and California has so much of it, including solar power from Los Angeles, that it has been giving some of that sunshine goodness away to neighboring states, like Arizona and Nevada, for years! How has our state and our big cities like Los Angeles produced so much solar power that they need to give it away (and in some instances actually pay other states to take it)? Is there a way for our state to better utilize our solar energy so we don’t have to send it to neighboring states? Let’s shine a light on these questions and see if we can find some answers.
California’s Aggressive Solar Push
California has long been a renewable energy leader. The Golden State passed Senate Bill 350 in 2015, which requires all utilities in the state to source half of their electricity sales from renewable sources. That obviously wasn’t enough of a stance against carbon-heavy fossil fuels. Earlier this year the California Energy Commission unanimously adopted standards that require solar panels on most new homes and buildings created after January 1st, 2020.
In other words, California is betting big on renewable energy, especially solar. The results have been impressive. In 2010, California’s power plants generated just 15% of their energy from renewable sources, which were mostly wind and geothermal power. By 2017, that number had risen to 27%, almost all of the increase coming from solar. Additionally, in 2017 Pacific Gas & Electric relied on solar for 13% of its power, whereas San Diego Gas & Electric utilized solar for 22% of the energy it provided to its SoCal customers.
Where is all of this solar energy coming from? If you were to jump on a plane and scour the state, you’d come across some of the world’s largest solar farms spread out in California’s desolate inland, including the Topaz Solar Farm (550 megawatt capability) in the Central Valley, as well as the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility (392 megawatts) and the Beacon Solar Project (250 megawatts) in the Mojave Desert. These major facilities combine to provide over 1,000 megawatts (MW) of solar power capability for the state.
Of course, you don’t even need to rent out a plane to see how solar is transforming California. You can see the increase in solar power in Los Angeles just by taking a jog around the neighborhood and counting up all the homes with solar panels on their roofs.
With this rapidly increasing solar capacity, it’s no surprise that California is making gains toward it’s renewable energy goals. What is surprising is just how laughably easy that goal seems now. The state has already easily surpassed its first milestone of generating 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and we might even hit the entire goal of 50% renewable energy production ten years early.
This is where too much of a good thing might actually become a problem. California has started to generate so much solar power so quickly that the state’s existing infrastructure is scrambling to adapt. In the short term, this has meant handing off some of our solar power to our neighbors and even in some instances begging them to take it!
Why California Doesn’t Use All of Its Renewable Energy
To understand why California is giving away solar power from Los Angeles and its other big cities, we must take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is the state entity in charge of running that state’s massive electrical grid. One of its prime directives is to prevent blackouts and brownouts, which have plagued California in the past.
California generates energy from a wide variety of sources, including from natural gas plants. It’s up to CAISO to figure out how to use all of this incoming energy effectively. The rise of solar power has made this balancing act more difficult. That’s because solar power is not a consistent energy source. During long, sunny days in the summer, solar energy can surge. At night, or during a stretch of cloudy days, the amount of available solar power can drop precipitously, forcing the state to rely more heavily on natural gas plants and other power sources.
The biggest energy glut typically comes in the winter, when power usage is low but solar energy production remains high. (In the summer, the heavy use of air conditioning across the state eagerly sucks up excess solar energy.) To some degree, California has the ability to turn off its solar tap. CAISO can ask its utility companies to cut back their solar energy production. Still, this isn’t always enough to manage the incoming energy supply. After all, the utilities can’t turn off the growing number of residential solar power systems.
Why not turn off the natural gas plants during sunny days when solar energy production jumps? That would certainly be a better deal for the environment, but not for California’s budget. It is costly to stop production at natural gas plants, which means solar plants are usually the first target for energy cuts.
In some cases, even cutting back on solar power isn’t enough to stem the flow of too much energy production. If too much power goes through California’s electrical grid, it could cause a brownout or blackout, almost like allowing too much steam to build up in a closed system. When this situation occurs, CAISO has to find a way to release the pressure and get rid of the excessive energy.
It turns out that sharing really is caring! CAISO often turns to California’s neighboring states to offload excess energy. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, California paid Arizona to take its solar power for eight days in January of 2017, nine days in February, and 14 days in March!
Arizona isn’t the only beneficiary of this largess. California has also been known to give its solar power away to Nevada and other neighboring states.
Why Does California Have to Pay for Its Neighbors to Take Its Energy?
You’d think that Arizona and the other states would be happy to get free energy. However, it’s all about supply and demand. If Arizona needs energy, it might be willing to pay California for its excess or accept the energy for free. However, if Arizona is producing enough energy on its own, it will actually need to turn off its own energy valves in order to take California’s energy, which costs it money.
In other words, when California desperately needs to get energy off its hands and no one wants it, we have to pay up!
This seems like a bizarre state of affairs, doesn’t it? California has gotten too good at producing solar power. How can our state figure out a way to actually use all the solar power it produces?
How to Keep Solar Power in Los Angeles
One answer is for California to slow down the pace of or entirely stop greenlighting new natural gas plants in the state. Surprisingly, until relatively recently, state regulators have been giving the thumbs up for new natural gas projects. Some utility officials claim that new plants are needed to stabilize the grid, especially at night or during cloudy days when solar power isn’t available. However, the state is home to plenty of existing natural gas plants, and many activists believe new ones aren’t needed. Instead, they want California to focus on finding better ways to harness solar energy.
That has everything to do with improving the way solar energy is stored. Reliable and efficient solar energy storage would allow California to keep all the excess solar power it produces on sunny days (or at least much more than it currently does) and feed that energy back into the electrical grid at night or during cloudy days.
Fortunately, solar storage technology continues to improve at a rapid pace. For example, solar panel batteries are getting better and cheaper each year. (Read our full review of the Tesla Powerwall.) Soon, effective solar storage systems may help eliminate some of the largest challenges of solar, which could, in turn, allow California to fully embrace its growing solar infrastructure without sending its solar energy out of state.
Last year, California Senate President, Kevin De León, introduced a measure that would have required California to produce 100% of its energy using renewable resources by 2045. That measure was narrowly defeated, but de León vowed to bring it up again. If this measure is adopted, California will likely have to increase its solar production capacity even more and find an effective storage solution.
You can help be part of California’s solar solution! If you want to see our state transition to 100% renewable energy, then now is the time to invest in solar panels for your home. Contact Semper Solaris today to request a free home energy analysis.