Californians can certainly brag about the state’s leading role in deploying renewable energy from the sun and wind. In-state renewable energy generation has spiked in the past few years, prices have come down significantly, and we appear to be well on our way to meeting the goal of 33 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
But will this renewable energy boom actually mean cleaner air and less greenhouse gas pollution? Most of us assume that renewable means clean. But the intermittent nature of much of this power – since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow – may lead grid operators to rely on more fossil fuel-based power to fill gaps in the renewable sources.
With the state poised to re-examine our long-term renewable energy goals under legislation signed last month by the governor, now is the time to ensure that renewable energy truly means less pollution from the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Accomplishing this task will require action by policymakers, innovation by the business community and support from the public.
As a first step, policymakers should require any increase in renewable energy deployment to support the state’s long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals, which are based on what scientists say is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. In short, we need a greenhouse gas standard for our entire electricity system – not just a renewable standard.
Second, California will need new policies and business innovations to meet this challenge. For example, energy storage systems, such as batteries and flywheels, can capture surplus renewable energy for later dispatch, helping to smooth the output of variable renewables. Regulators just instituted first-in-the-nation requirements for utilities to purchase a set amount of energy storage technologies, and now utilities and businesses will need to meet this challenge by reducing energy storage costs and deploying these technologies where they can maximize their bang for the buck.
Third, as California modernizes its grid, we should continue to invest in technologies that allow consumers to seamlessly vary electricity usage according to the patterns of renewable energy generation. Called “demand response,” these technologies can allow dishwashers, dryers, electric vehicle charging and other uses to be synched to renewables via communications technology. With expanded investment and supporting policies, consumers would have more options to participate and receive credits on their electricity bills.
Finally, policymakers across the Western United States should consider linking in-state renewable resources to a regionwide “energy imbalance market” that would allow grid operators in California to purchase renewable energy from out of state on cloudy or windless days.
Steps like these could help ensure that more California renewables truly mean less pollution and climate disruption. Acting now will put in place the policies and technologies needed for long-term benefit and help avoid wasting investments in expensive, polluting power plants that will take decades to decommission. California can continue to blaze a trail for others to follow, while ensuring that we deploy renewables in the most effective – and clean – manner as possible.
Elkind is the Bank of America Climate Policy Associate at the UC Berkeley and UCLA schools of law and author of the new report, “ Renewable Energy Beyond 2020: Next Steps for California.”