California hit 95% renewable energy, but challenges remain

Source: By Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times • Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2021

Something remarkable happened over the weekend: California hit nearly 95% renewable energy.

I’ll say it again: 95% renewables. For all the time we spend talking about how to reach 100% clean power, it sometimes seems like a faraway proposition, whether the timeframe is California’s 2045 target or President Biden’s more aggressive 2035 goal. But on Saturday just before 2:30 p.m., one of the world’s largest economies came within a stone’s throw of getting there.

There are several caveats. For one thing, Saturday’s 94.5% figure — a record, as confirmed to me by the California Independent System Operator — was fleeting, lasting just four seconds. It was specific to the state’s main power grid, which covers four-fifths of California but doesn’t include Los Angeles, Sacramento and several other regions. It came at a time of year defined by abundant sunshine and relatively cool weather, meaning it’s easier for renewable power to do the job traditionally done by fossil fuels.

And fossil fuels actually were doing part of the job — more than the 94.5% figure might suggest. California was producing enough clean power to supply nearly 95% of its in-state needs, but it was also burning a bunch of natural gas and exporting electricity to its Western neighbors. It’s impossible to say exactly how much of the Golden State’s own supply was coming from renewables.

That said, what happened on Saturday is definitely a big deal.

“It sends chills down my spine. It’s amazing,” said Elliot Mainzer, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s main power grid. “These types of transitions aren’t always pretty. But we’re getting a lot of renewable generation online, making a real dent in the state’s carbon emissions.”

I’ll get to the bit about the transition not always being pretty in a minute. For now, here’s a chart based on data from the grid operator’s website, showing how various sources of power supply changed hour by hour on Saturday:

Chart showing California power supply, April 24

That green line at the top is renewables; you can see how it jumps up in the morning and falls in the evening, reflecting sunrise and sunset. The orange line under that is natural gas. The red line at the bottom is out-of-state imports. It sinks into negative territory in the middle of the day because California has so much solar power that it’s selling some to other states.

The 94.5% record may have been fleeting, but it wasn’t some isolated spike. Most of Saturday afternoon, the renewables number topped 90%, with solar and wind farms doing the bulk of the work and geothermal, biomass and hydropower facilities making smaller contributions. Add in the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant — which isn’t counted toward California’s renewables mandate — and there was enough climate-friendly power at times Saturday to account for more than 100% of the state’s electricity needs.

So California has lots of clean power. The important thing now is making sure the puzzle pieces of the grid fit together on hot summer evenings, like the ones last August when insufficient supplies after sundown led to rolling blackouts.

State officials are taking many steps to avoid a repeat of last summer’s emergency, some of which are more controversial than others. They’re also beginning to focus on the longer term. Mainzer’s grid operator recently urged the California Public Utilities Commission to order electric companies to add 10,000 megawatts of power by 2026 — about one-eighth of the state’s entire generating capacity! — in part to make sure there’s enough supply on the grid when the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant closes.

“That’s not an inconsequential investment,” Mainzer said.

No, it’s most definitely not. But while some of the clean energy solutions California is almost certain to need will carry a high upfront price tag, others are much less expensive. In fact, some produce immediate savings.

Case in point: the Western Energy Imbalance Market.

I’ve avoided writing too much about the Western EIM (acronym alert!) because it gets very wonky, very fast. But it’s absolutely worth knowing about. It’s a unique program that makes it easier for utility companies across the American West to share extra electricity, with a goal of saving money for ratepayers (i.e. you and me) and reducing planet-warming emissions.

How does it work? As I explained in a 2017 deep dive for the Desert Sun, the program allows out-of-state utilities to participate in California’s real-time electricity market, where they can buy power to fill in last-minute gaps between supply and demand.

So if California has more solar power than it can use on a sunny afternoon — a growing trend each spring — it can send some of that cheap electricity to Arizona, which then might be able to burn less coal. Or if the wind is ripping in Wyoming — home to some of the country’s strongest, most consistent gusts — California can tap into that clean power rather than firing up a gas plant.

A key barrier to this type of cooperation in the past was mistrust: Red states worried about blue states shoving renewable energy down their throats, and blue states worried about red states forcing them to buy dirty energy. And nobody wanted to risk finding themselves short on electricity in a pinch because some out-of-state utility made a higher bid for their power.

But in the seven years since California launched the Western EIM, that mistrust has started to fade.

There are now 14 electric grid operators participating in the imbalance market, from Arizona Public Service in the Southwest to Idaho Power in the Northwest to Warren Buffett-owned Rocky Mountain Power in the Intermountain West. Several utilities joined this month, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has long zealously guarded its independence. Several more are preparing to join, as far from California as NorthWestern Energy in Montana and El Paso Electric in Texas.

By 2023, the market will cover 83% of electricity demand in the West. Here’s a map of the current and planned participants:

Map showing Western EIM participants and pending participants.

The program is growing so fast in part because of the measurable economic benefits. Through the end of 2020, participants collectively saved nearly $1.2 billion. Mainzer told me another $101 million in savings accrued in the first quarter of this year.

“California has seen about $300 million of those benefits, and the state hasn’t had to pay a penny to see that market get up and running,” he said. “It’s just been a smashing success.”

At the same time, political obstacles still stand in the way of a fully integrated Western power grid that could do a whole lot more to limit costs, reduce climate pollution and ultimately prevent power outages — “one grid to rule them all,” to borrow a phrase I first saw used by Utility Dive journalist Herman K. Trabish.

Three years of discussion over expanding the EIM, for instance, have not yet resulted in an agreement among the participants. A proposal from then-Gov. Jerry Brown that would have transitioned California’s grid operator to a truly regional power authority — again, see my 2017 deep dive— was defeated several times in the state Legislature, amid opposition from lawmakers who worried the plan would result in fewer in-state jobs and cede too much power over California’s energy mix to other states.

Some of those other states are similarly wary of Mainzer’s Independent System Operator, which is led by appointees of the California governor. The agency’s primary responsibility is serving Californians, even as it runs the EIM for the whole region.

Those tensions came to a head last week when the grid operator’s leaders voted to prioritize California’s electricity needs during crunch times on the grid this summer, to the possible detriment of out-of-state utilities that typically have been able to send energy through California’s power lines without much trouble. Arizona and Nevada’s major utilities wrote that the plan was “not equitable or fair.” Mainzer’s former employer, the Portland-based Bonneville Power Administration, wasn’t happy either.

“We take our obligations to California dead seriously,” Mainzer said.

At the same time, he added, “we definitely are very motivated to help the broader West.” As California should be. The state won’t make much of a difference on climate change unless it can bring the rest of the country and world along for the ride.

At the moment, Mainzer is focused on keeping the lights on this summer. He’s also happy to celebrate the 95% renewable energy record, even if only for a moment.

“We have to remember the positives of the story as well,” he said.