California renewables policies outpacing infrastructure

The state with the most aggressive climate and clean energy standard needs to slow down until planned transmission development can catch up with the growth in wind and solar energy needed to meet the expectations of consumers and politicians.

Bob Foster, mayor of Long Beach, California and chair of the California Independent System Operator and retired chair of Southern California Edison, which offers a unique perspective, to say the least, (spoke) at the concluding event of the fourth EnergyBiz Leadership Forum near Washington, D.C. The forum is sponsored by Energy Central’s EnergyBiz Magazine.

California’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 33% by 2020, which the state will meet. Foster said some in the state would prefer to have an RPS of 40% to 50%.

“What we really need is time to catch our breath to deal with what we have,” Foster said.

Foster said the transmission system can deal with the changes in the short run, but further acceleration could create additional issues.

The California grid is more unstable than it was before, while demands caused by large penetrations of intermittent wind and solar are increasing under its mandate.

An example occurred when 600 MW of wind dropped off 30 minutes before it was expected, potentially creating a stress on reliability. Another minefield is that a misinformed public thinks renewable energy is cheaper than it is.

“We’ve got to do it right, so that if public expectations fail to meet the reality then it will be very detrimental to renewable energy not only in the rest of the United States but around the world,” Foster said.

The need for additional ramping resources, combined-cycle natural gas, creates its own set of issues. With plants running at low levels for ramping up and down on short time cycles, the possibility exists that the carbon emissions could actually increase with greater renewables penetration.

He added that the residents may see a pause in carbon regulations in California as Governor Jerry Brown is concerned about the impact on prices.

That “30,000-foot view” of energy policy and emerging technologies concluded the event, “Harnessing Disruption,” as the theme of this year’s EnergyBiz Leadership Forum, as most discussions were dominated by the emergence of cheap natural gas.

Another panelist, Byron Dorgan, retired Democratic senator from North Dakota, said that generation will continue to become cleaner.

“There will be a national renewable or a clean energy standard at some point. It won’t be 30% like California, but it will happen,” he said.

But a price on carbon may eventually come, but political inaction burdens utilities with uncertainty.

Raymond L. Orbach, the founding Director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute, said a key to renewables integration and acceptance is improved storage, which may be coming.

“In battery storage we’re looking at 10 times the capacity of lithium ion batteries for essentially the same price,” he said.

In earlier comments on the program by John Rowe, the just-retired CEO of Exelon, he reiterated the disruptive changes that cheap gas has had on the power sector.

While gas is the fuel of choice today, nuclear power could be “decades away” due to the Fukushima disaster. “Nuclear, wind and solar aren’t economic today but could be later on,” he said.

“The political decision is for more wind. The economic one is for more gas,” Rowe said. He expects economics will win the day.

But economics, policies and reality on the ground move on their own independent tracks.