Cal­i­for­nia has too much so­lar power — is that good for ratepay­ers?

Lodi News-Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Sammy Roth

Cal­i­for­nia set two re­new­able en­ergy records last week: the most so­lar power ever flow­ing on the state’s main elec­tric grid, and the most so­lar power ever taken off­line be­cause it wasn’t needed.

There’s no con­tra­dic­tion: As Cal­i­for­nia util­i­ties buy more and more so­lar power as part of the state’s quest to con­front cli­mate change, sup­ply and de­mand are in­creas­ingly out of sync. The state’s fleet of so­lar farms and rooftop pan­els fre­quently gen­er­ate more elec­tric­ity than Cal­i­for­ni­ans use dur­ing the mid­dle of the day — a phe­nom­e­non that has sent law­mak­ers and some cli­mate ad­vo­cates scram­bling to find ways to save the ex­tra sun­light rather than let it go to waste.

But for ratepay­ers, an over­sup­ply of so­lar power might ac­tu­ally be a good thing.

New re­search pub­lished in the peer-re­viewed jour­nal So­lar En­ergy sug­gests Cal­i­for­nia should em­brace the idea of build­ing more so­lar pan­els than it can con­sis­tently use, rather than treat­ing over­sup­ply as a prob­lem to be solved. It sounds coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but in­ten­tion­ally over­build­ing so­lar fa­cil­i­ties — and ac­cept­ing they’ll of­ten need to be di­aled down in the ab­sence of suf­fi­cient de­mand — may be the best way to keep elec­tric­ity prices low on a power grid dom­i­nated by re­new­able en­ergy, the re­search found.

In a study pub­lished in March, New York-based re­searchers Richard Perez and Karl Rabago ar­gue that so­lar power has got­ten so in­ex­pen­sive that over­build­ing it will prob­a­bly be the cheap­est way to keep the lights on dur­ing cloudy or over­cast days — cheaper than re­ly­ing en­tirely on bat­ter­ies. So­lar power can meet high lev­els of day­time elec­tric­ity de­mand without en­ergy stor­age, the re­searchers say, as long as there are enough so­lar pan­els on the grid dur­ing times when none of them are pro­duc­ing at full ca­pac­ity.

“It’s not like so­lar is go­ing to be avail­able all the time,” said Perez, a so­lar en­ergy ex­pert at the State Univer­sity of New York at Al­bany. “At night you will need stor­age, and on cloudy days you will need stor­age. But you will need much less of it.”

Cal­i­for­nia has set a tar­get of 60% re­new­able en­ergy on the power grid by 2030, as well as a longer-term goal of 100% cli­mate-friendly en­ergy, a broader def­i­ni­tion that could in­clude hy­dro­elec­tric­ity or nu­clear power. A dozen other states and U.S. territorie­s have adopted or are con­sid­er­ing sim­i­lar 100% clean en­ergy goals, and they’ll be watch­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s progress as they try to fig­ure out how to make those goals a re­al­ity.

The Golden State’s suc­cess de­pends in part on achiev­ing its goals without send­ing en­ergy prices soar­ing. Cal­i­for­nia al­ready has some of the coun­try’s high­est elec­tric­ity rates, although low lev­els of en­ergy use mean monthly bills are rel­a­tively low.

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