California could hit the solar wall

[ According to this Stanford University article, if California uses mainly solar power to meet a 50% Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), on sunny days, for most of the year, more power would be generated mid-day than needed 23% of the time, and over-generation by solar PV from 42 to 65%. On average, nearly 9% of solar or other electricity generation would have to be be shut down. In other words, California could hit the solar wall.

Why would California mainly use solar rather than wind power as well? “Unlike the Midwest, California has a modest technical potential for wind and many of the best sites are already developed [my comment: any sites not developed yet are too expensive or far from the grid]. California does have a large offshore-wind resource but high costs and technological challenges remain. Importing electricity generated by onshore wind from neighboring states is promising, but some imports will require new high-voltage transmission lines that may take a decade to plan, site, permit, finance and build.”

Overall, California has already developed MOST of the best sites (NREL 2013):

“Prime renewable resources include wind (40% capacity factor or better), solar (7.5 DNI or better), and discovered geothermal potential. All other renewable resources are non-prime. California’s remaining options for easily developable in-state utility-scale renewables could be limited by 2025. Wind, geothermal, biomass, and small hydro projects under contract (either existing or under construction) are about equal to the total developable potential estimated for each of these technologies in California’s renewable energy zones. 

Solar projects to date, however, exceed the amount of developable prime and borderline prime resources estimated to exist within California’s zones.  This suggests that California’s remaining solar resource areas tend have less solar exposure than what has already been developed and might be less productive.”

Less productive = more expensive. This report also points out that California will have 44.3 million people in 2025, requiring renewable generation to grow even further. ]

The consequences of too much solar power include:

  • Since solar power provides energy when least needed (mid-day rather than peak morning and late afternoon hours), massive amounts of power from national gas power plants (tens of gigawatt hours of energy) would need to QUICKLY ramp up as the sun’s power rapidly fades in the afternoon, requiring large expensive natural gas back-up plants. But natural gas is finite, so that’s a temporary solution. The only other commercial source of dispatchable energy is (pumped) hydropower, but there are few spots to put new dams, and existing dams are limited much of the year due to drought, fisheries, agriculture, and drinking water. Geothermal, nuclear, coal are not dispatchable — they are considered baseload power running 24 x 7. They can’t ramp up and down in less than 6 to 8 hours because that damages their equipment.  When built they expected to generate a certain percent of power per day to pay back their cost, so when they have to shut down quickly because solar and wind power have first rights to provide power.  This can drive electricity prices negative, but since ramping down can damage their equipment, coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants lose money to continue generating power. This is why many nuclear and coal power plants are shutting down — they are losing money.  But since solar and wind are unreliable, intermittent, and unpredictable, the electric grid needs them to be ready to fill in when the sun goes down and the wind dies.
  • Utility scale energy battery storage is dispatchable, but far from commercial.
  • Large-scale curtailment of solar PV during times of over-generation reduce the value of solar capacity additions to investors.
  • Real-time pricing during times of over-generation could limit or eliminate the net-metering advantage of PV on residential and commercial-scale installations.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Benson, S., and Majumdar, A. July 12, 2016. On the path to deep decarbonization: Avoiding the solar wall. Stanford University.

Photo: Close-up of solar modules. Credit: NREL

Photo: NREL

While you might not have been paying attention, California’s electric grid has undergone a radical transformation. Today, more than 25 percent of the electricity used in California comes from renewable energy resources, not including the additional 10-15 percent from large-scale hydropower or all the electricity generated from roof-top solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Compared to only five years ago, solar energy has grown 20-fold (Figure 1). In the middle of a typical springtime day, solar energy from utility-scale power plants provides an impressive 7 gigawatts (GW) of grid-connected power, accounting for about 20 percent of the electricity used across the state (Figure 2).

Last year, the total electricity from both in-state and out-of-state resources was 296,843  gigawatt-hours (GWh), including out-of-state generation from unspecified sources. An estimated 8 percent of California’s electricity consumption was generated from wind farms and 6 percent from solar power plants connected directly to the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) grid. This rapid growth is great news for the nascent renewable energy industry and can serve as proof-point for the scale-up of renewable energy.  In addition to these utility-scale renewable energy power plants, California has an additional 3.5 GW of solar “self-generation” on the customer side of the meter that offsets demand for electricity from the grid when the sun is shining. And, a growing third source is “community solar,” where residents and businesses invest in small, local solar plants.

Figure 1. Total electricity generation in California from solar and wind energy directly connected to the CASIO grid (California Energy Almanac).

By law, in 2020 California plans to have 33% of its electricity sourced from renewable sources and 50% by 2030 under its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements. Many in-state renewable energy projects are in the pipeline, including nearly 9 GW of solar PV and 1.8 GW of new wind projects that have received environmental permits.  Power purchase agreements have already been signed for at least 1 GW of new solar projects. If all of these permitted projects were developed, California would have about 16 GW of solar-generating capacity by 2020.

While wind has provided a significant portion of California’s renewables to date, the majority of new additions for meeting the 2020 33% RPS requirement is forecast to come from direct grid-connected solar PV. California has an enormous and high-quality solar resource, with an estimated technical potential of more than 4,000 GW for utility-scale solar and 76 GW for rooftop solar. Unlike the Midwest, California has a modest technical potential for wind and many of the best sites are already developed. California does have a large offshore-wind resource, some of which is now in permitting, but high costs and technological challenges remain. Importing electricity generated by onshore wind from neighboring states is promising, but some imports will require new high-voltage transmission lines that may take a decade to plan, site, permit, finance and build.

Figure 2. California energy mix on May 29, 2016. Note that renewables provide more than 40% of the power during the middle of the day. Of this, more than 30% is from solar power (CAISO Daily Renewables Watch).

California has a major effort – the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) – that has successfully identified and built lines to meet its RPS requirements. This year, California launched a new phase of RETI to develop the additional transmission, both in-state and out-of-state, needed for the 50-percent RPS. A recent study supporting California Senate Bill 350 implementation (which includes the 50-percent RPS) showed from $1 billion to  $1.5 billion annual savings by adding major  transmission lines that would bring more out-of-state wind energy into California.

If, instead, California continues to rely mostly on solar resource for meeting the 2030 50-percent RPS, the total statewide solar-generating capacity would reach 30 to 40 GW under peak production, according to a report by Energy and Environmental Economics Inc. (E3). Under these conditions, on a sunny day, for most of the year, California would be generating more electric power than it needs during the middle of the day from solar energy alone. E3 calculates that this large amount of overgeneration could be a problem 23 percent of the time, resulting in curtailment of 8.9 percent of available renewable energy, with marginal overgeneration by solar PV of 42-65 percent. In other words, California could hit the solar wall. And this does not even consider that midday demand is likely to decrease due to the installation of additional residential and commercial solar PV systems “behind the electricity meter.”

Consequences of hitting the solar wall

Just a decade ago it would have been nearly unthinkable that during the middle of the day solar energy could provide more electricity than an economy as large as California’s needs. But supportive policies, rapid scale-up and decreasing costs make this possibility a reality today. While from some perspectives this is very encouraging, in reality, there are consequences for hitting the solar wall. For example:

  • Reliance on so much solar energy would require rapid ramping capacity for more than 10s of GW of natural gas power plants from 4:00-6:00 p.m., when the sun is going down and electricity demand goes up as people return home.
  • Large back-up capacity from natural gas plants or access to other sources of dispatchable electricity would be required for days when the sun isn’t shining.
  • Zero marginal-cost solar generation could squeeze out other valuable low-carbon electricity sources that can provide baseload power. For example, natural gas combined cycle plants, geothermal energy and nuclear power that cannot operate during these times at zero marginal cost.
  • Large-scale curtailment of solar PV during times of over-generation, which will reduce the value of solar capacity additions to investors.
  • Real-time pricing during times of over-generation could limit or eliminate the net-metering advantage of PV on residential and commercial-scale installations.

There is no doubt that California’s solar energy potential is invaluable, but we must take steps to avoid the solar wall.  Fortunately, these issues are being recognized and addressed at many levels in California.

Avoiding the solar wall

Numerous approaches to avoiding the solar wall are available today, and in the future more options will exist as we develop new technologies, policies and markets to take advantage of large solar-energy resources that exist around the world. In the short term, key actions include:

  • Develop a renewable energy-generation mix that is well-balanced among solar, wind and other forms of renewable generation. The right generation mix will be region specific, but for California should include increasing wind generation to provide nighttime power. [my comment: what other renewable generation?  To reach an 80 to 100% renewable grid, most of the power has to come from solar and wind with a little help from geothermal and hydropower]
  • Support regional generation markets across wide geographic areas to balance the variability of renewable generation. California has created an energy imbalance market with participants in Nevada, Wyoming and Oregon. Expansion of regional markets is being studied as part of the implementation of Senate Bill 350, California’s 50-percent RPS law.
  • Ensure adequate capacity of rapid ramping natural gas plants  to provide reliable supply during the morning and evening hours as the sun rises and sets. [my comment: natural gas is finite! Conventional natural gas peaked in 2001 in the U.S., shale gas is peaking both economically now and geologically by 2020, and we have only 4 Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) import terminals].
  • Expand use of load shifting through real-time pricing to incentivize using power during daytime hours when large amounts of solar power are available.
  • Encourage daytime smart charging of electric vehicles to take advantage of abundant and zero marginal-cost solar generation. Achieving this will require workplace charging stations and new business models. With transportation at about 40% of the state’s energy use, electrification of the transport sector could have the dual benefits of eliminating tailpipe emissions and providing demand for abundant and low-cost solar energy. [My comment: the math and computer algorithms to have a smart grid are far from existence, batteries aren’t much better than they were 210 years ago, and trucks can’t run on batteries. ]
  • Increase energy storage to avoid curtailment of solar over-generation during peak production periods. For now, few financial incentives exist for large-scale pumped-hydropower or compressed air storage projects [my comment: that’s not the problem!  There are very few places left to put pumped-hydro and no spots at all to put compressed air facilities, unless they’re above ground, which is crazy expensive]. Levelized costs of small-scale storage in batteries range from about $300 to more than $1,000/megawatt-hour (MWh) depending on the use-case and the technology. These are expensive compared to pumped-hydro storage at $190 to $270/MWh. For comparison, gas peaker plants have a levelized cost of $165 to $218/MWh. The business case for battery storage will be limited until prices come down significantly. Both R&D and scale-up will be needed to reduce costs. [my comment: utility scale battery storage is FAR from commercial, and only sodium sulfur (NaS) batteries have enough material on earth to store half a day of world electricity (see Barnhart, Charles J. and Benson, Sally M. January 30, 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environ. Sci., 2013, 6, 1083-1092)]
  • [ My comment: Furthermore, utility scale battery storage is far from being commercial. Using data from the Department of Energy (DOE/EPRI 2013) energy storage handbook “Electricity storage handbook in collaboration with NRECA”, I calculated that the cost of NaS batteries capable of storing 24 hours of electricity generation in the United States came to $40.77 trillion dollars, covered 923 square miles, and weighed in at a husky 450 million tons.
    Sodium Sulfur (NaS) Battery Cost Calculation:
    NaS Battery 100 MW. Total Plant Cost (TPC) $316,796,550. Energy
    Capacity @ rated depth-of-discharge 86.4 MWh. Size: 200,000 square feet.
    Weight: 7000,000 lbs, Battery replacement 15 years (DOE/EPRI p. 245).
    128,700 NaS batteries needed for 1 day of storage = 11.12 TWh/0.0000864 TWh.
    $40.77 trillion dollars to replace the battery every 15 years = 128,700 NaS * $316,796,550 TPC.
    923 square miles = 200,000 square feet * 128,700 NaS batteries.
    450 million short tons = 7,000,000 lbs * 128,700 batteries/2000 lbs.
    Using similar logic and data from DOE/EPRI, Li-ion batteries would cost
    $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles, and weigh 74 million tons. Lead–acid (advanced) would cost $8.3 trillion dollars, take up 217.5 square miles, and weigh 15.8 million tons.
  • Use electrolysis to produce hydrogen fuel to augment the natural gas grid, generate heat and power with fuel cells, or power hydrogen vehicles. [my comment: hydrogen is the least likely energy solution, even more unlikely than fusion]. Also, compared to storing electricity in batteries, hydrogen-based storage systems that combine electrolysis and  fuel cells are about three times less efficient.  In addition, today, these technologies are expensive, and significant cost reductions will be required to make them competitive alternatives.
  • For the longer term, scientists are developing new methods to produce fuels from renewable energy. The SUNCAT Center and  the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis are developing new materials to produce “zero net carbon fuels” from carbon dioxide, water and renewable energy that can be used for transportation or backing up the electric grid. While we don’t know if and when the needed breakthroughs will occur, the game-changing potential of net zero carbon fuels would unlock the full potential of solar energy and break through the solar wall.  [My comment: before reading further, if the fuel isn’t DIESEL to keep trucks running, then what’s the point? And given that we’re at peak oil, peak coal, and peak natural gas, we don’t have the time for breakthroughs to occur. You’d want to prepare at least 20 years ahead of time].

Taking full advantage of the power from the sun

The global potential of solar energy is enormous and surely it can play a major role in a deeply decarbonized future energy system. In Thomas Edison’s words, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”*

We have work to do, but we are well on the way.  Who would have imagined just five years ago that solar energy would provide 6% of California’s electricity and is on track to double, triple or go beyond? But we need to be smart – avoiding running into the solar wall by balancing the generation mix, expanding regional markets, creating real-time markets to increase demand during solar peak-generating periods and creating new electricity demand, such as day-time charging for electric vehicles. In the longer term, electricity storage, hydrogen generation and zero net carbon fuels will further unlock the potential of solar energy.

*As quoted in Uncommon Friends : Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh(1987), by James Newton, p. 31


NREL. August 2013. Beyond Renewable Portfolio Standards: An Assessment of Regional Supply and Demand Conditions Affecting the Future of Renewable Energy in the West. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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6 Responses to California could hit the solar wall

  1. sheila chambers says:

    Solar power is a disaster for the grid, it’s too erratic, too weak, TOO EXPENSIVE, too unreliable & it’s NOT “renewable” anymore than your SUV, computer or cell phone.
    I think I’ll start calling my car, computer, water heater, heat pump etc “renewable”, there just as “renewable” as those solar cells & wind turbines.
    Germany has discovered to it’s sorrow that solar cells & wind turbines are not only very EXPENSIVE but the electricity they produce is of very low quality, it’s erratic, intermittent, weak & unreliable, that’s NOT what you need to add to the grid, they can fry your EXPENSIVE TRANSFORMERS.
    Our electronics & manufacturing needs reliable, stable electricity of the right voltage & frequency, not electricity that’s all over the place & still needs to be supported with FOSSIL FUELS!
    Our huge overpopulation is not sustainable, we are headed for collapse, “renewables” will just use up our resources even faster without providing the reliable, AFFORDABLE, energy we need.
    Our civilization is not sustainable, no matter what, we are headed for collapse. Trying to manufacture enough solar cells & wind turbines to replace fossil fuels in generating electricity will only speed up our collapse & add even more green house gases to the atmosphere speeding up global warming & you will STILL need fossil fuels to keep the grid functioning.
    What must be done but what won’t be done is to drastically reduce our population & our use of fossil fuels, just stopping the burning of fossil fuels will collapse our population & civilization but that might save our species & the living planet, keep on with BAU & we will probably go EXTINCT because of a runaway greenhouse we may have already set off.
    If we have, we are already doomed.
    Every year since 2013 has been hotter than the year before, if this trend continues, if methane continues to increasingly gush out from the north & C02 keeps climbing, then it’s too late, the runaway greenhouse will be unstoppable & we are doomed.
    So much for being “homo sapiens”.

    • sheila chambers says:

      The person using red ink has it right, there are indeed problems with “renewables”, for one, their not “renewable”, there is no “alternative renewable” energy source that can fill the gaps in solar or wind generation like hydrogen which is NOT an energy source but an energy carrier which takes more energy to make than can be gotten from it, a loser.
      There aren’t enough resources to build enough batteries for storage for when the sun don’t shine & the wind don’t blow.
      “Renewables” just aren’t scaleable because we are so dam overpopulated, they can’t generate enough when it’s needed, we can’t build enough of them to even once replace fossil fuels & how will we replace them when the first generation wears out?

      Batteries cannot replace diesel fuel for trucks, they weigh too much, take up too much space, travel too short, take too long to recharge, carry too little cargo, the end of oil will be the end of trucking & the 2000 mile salad.

      We have hit the wall of finite limits!
      Time to get stoned AGAIN!

      Thanks “energyskeptic” for having such a well thought out rebuttal to the “renewable” energy pushers. I love your site!
      Sure the sun & wind are “renewable” as long as the sun shines but using high tech devices for generating electricity from them is not renewable because those devices need nonrenewable resources to exist.

    • Maura Shannon- Benton says:

      you do not that we are doomed. You do not know, nor can you know about unforeseen events. I agree with much of what you say above. Nobody that’s needs to be convinced is listening to what you are saying.Im all for preaching to the choir, but realistically how many people out of 7 billion are going to read our little discussion

  2. energyskeptic says:

    I know a woman who is bringing solar to Africa. I said that was wonderful, cooking with solar would help to prevent remaining (rain)forests from being cut down to cook with. A few seconds of silence. I’m bring cell phones and solar chargers — people don’t want to cook at noon because they’re at work or busy elsewhere. If even the poorest of the poor can’t be bothered to save the planet by cooking with solar power, what hope is there of the more affluent taking appropriate actions

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    The cost numbers for batteries have the wrong units. It should be $300 to $1000 per kWh, not MWh.

    It is far less expensive (2 to 3 orders of magnitude) to store energy as heat rather than in batteries. CSP with several days to weeks of storage is perfectly feasible technically and will eventually become financially attractive, especially if gas powered peaking plants are discouraged due to carbon emission concerns.

  4. energyskeptic says:

    Well, tell Sally at Stanford about the Mwh issue.

    Concentrated Solar power/thermal plants cost about $1 billion each, and only a quarter now in operation or being built have energy storage.

    They also use a lot of water without dry cooling, in which case they are less energy efficient (and still use water).

    But if their EROI is positive they’d be better than solar PV as energy storage, but they cost so much I don’t know if many will be built.