Could Calif. run on 100% renewables? Some researchers think so

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014

Among all the states that have mandated renewable energy targets, California leads the pack. Under the Global Warming Solutions Act — signed into law by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2006 — the state must receive 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and lower its emissions by 80 percent, relative to 1990 levels, by 2050.

But according to a new study from a team of 27 researchers, the Golden State can go even further. The study finds that all fossil fuels could be shut down by 2050, replaced by a combination of wind, solar power, tidal generators and other existing technologies.

Moreover, the authors contend, such a transition would provide a financial net benefit when the life-cycle costs of renewable technologies and energy-efficient buildings — along with the avoided cost of fossil fuels — are taken into account.

“Looking forward in time, we see rising costs of fossil fuels,” said Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering and lead author of the report. “On the other hand, we know the cost of wind and solar for the next 30 to 40 years, because it’s almost entirely upfront — there’s no ongoing fuel costs.”

Even without factoring in associated health benefits, those avoided fuel expenses translate into several thousand dollars per California resident by 2050, he said.

And as a result of the wholesale switch from fossil fuels to electrification, power demand would drop by almost 40 percent, Jacobson pointed out.

“Electricity is much more efficient than combustion,” he said. As an example, he pointed to the relative efficiency of an electric motor — which uses about 90 percent of the energy put into it — versus the internal combustion engines used in most cars, which lose between 80 and 85 percent of their energy to heat and friction.

Relatively straightforward energy efficiency measures could account for 5.5 percent decrease in power consumed, he said.

Big changes ahead

The study, published in the journal Energy last week, follows similar studies by the lead authors on a possible energy transition for the state of New York.

As with that earlier study, the authors make no attempt to underplay the scale of such a transition.

Much of the state’s basic infrastructure would have to be retrofitted, and nearly all of its energy infrastructure replaced, to reach the study’s targeted reduction in end-use power demand. The state’s more than 30 million petroleum-powered cars would have to be replaced by electric or hydrogen-fuel-powered vehicles. Thousands of wind turbines, solar arrays, geothermal plants and tidal devices would have to be brought online in place of retired fossil fuel generation.

But as daunting as such a project might seem, it’s worth noting the Golden State’s recent progress on the clean energy front. California has had an effective moratorium on new coal-fired generation since 2007, and is so far along in its adoption of renewable energy that it may exceed even its 2020 target.

And certainly, nothing less than an economywide shift will allow California to meet its current goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

At the moment, Jacobson said, it’s unclear how California can meet its midcentury target. “I hope [our study] can give them some ideas,” he said.