CA renewable energy yield yo-yos, raises concern

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGov. Jerry Brown and big majorities in the California Legislature are all aboard with plans to have the state get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory goes even further. As Vox reported last month, it no longer believes there is any technical barrier to “a grid running on 100 percent wind and solar.”

This view counters the conventional wisdom. A comprehensive study by Cornell electrical engineer Eilyan Bitar released earlier this year is highly skeptical that a grid system could be reliable without traditional “bulk power generation.”

All of which makes recent developments with California’s wind- and solar-power industries of acute interest. According to a global-energy blog run by McGraw-Hill’s financial information branch …

In the first quarter of this year, with unseasonably warm dry weather tamping down wind flows in California, the amount of power generated by the state’s 44 wind farms fell off by around 35% compared to the first quarter of 2014, according to data filed with the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Energy Information Administration … .


While that was a first, clear signal that wind power had its distinct draw-backs, but two more recent dates — June 8 and 9 — seemed something like days of reckoning for renewables in California.


As demand for power rose and generation surged to meet it, rain, widespread cloud cover and poor wind pushed down the amount of wind and solar generation available to help meet the demand. Because of the shortage of renewables, prices surged.

‘Microgrids’ meshing with the ‘Internet of things’

This relative unreliability is why Bitar thinks the answer going forward is “microgrids.” This is from a physics blog run by Cornell:

In an intelligent grid, this variability in supply would be balanced through the coordination of flexible distributed energy resources at the periphery of the system. Power would be produced locally and consumed locally, giving rise to self-sufficient communities or cities, called microgrids. Such an approach would decrease the need to transmit bulk power hundreds of miles to counterbalance fluctuations in renewable sources.


The architecture of such a system, which requires sensors and actuators in appliances, electric vehicles and the like, isn’t the hard part, Bitar said. The hard part is the design of algorithms to efficiently manage the deluge of information produced by those sensors in order to coordinate the simultaneous control of millions of distributed energy resources on fast time scales.

This in turn suggests the “Internet of things” that Americans have been told is just around the corner — in which an online network constantly monitors and links humans, appliances and machines — would also be an extension of the electricity grid.

Privacy advocates would then have a new area to worry about — individual energy use being subject to 24-7-365 monitoring.

An essay in the Guardian earlier this year raised such concerns.


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  1. Sean
    Sean 6 July, 2015, 10:59

    What is remarkable is that there is little discussion of pumped hydro storage. This is a technology that is feasible on an industrial grid scale and it currently used by the TVA and several places like Portugal which have high renewable penetration and the right geographic topography to have high elevation and low elevation water storage.

    Reply this comment
    • Richard Rider
      Richard Rider 6 July, 2015, 18:12

      Sean, while technically feasible, hydro storage works much better in the TVA which is heavily depending on uber-cheap hydro power which runs 24/7. We don’t have that option, as the renewable sources we increasingly depend on are VERY expensive and unreliable.

      Reply this comment
      • Sean
        Sean 7 July, 2015, 08:21

        Yes I agree it’s expensive but the state has already decided to go down this path. One of the recurring issues I’ve read a lot about though is the “duck curve” that looks at generation from renewables during a normal day (peaking mid to late afternoon) and the demand from business and household use which peaks in demand in the early evening. Since the state is already paying to pump water over mountain ranges, (water movement consumes 14% of the electric power in the state) it seems that expanded storage at or near the highest elevation would allow you to hold that potential energy and draw on it later in the day.

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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