Want more renewable energy? State should stop building natural gas plants

With California’s renewable energy goal of 100 percent renewables by 2045, it no longer makes sense to invest in expensive natural gas plants and related infrastructure, Laura Wisland writes.
With California’s renewable energy goal of 100 percent renewables by 2045, it no longer makes sense to invest in expensive natural gas plants and related infrastructure, Laura Wisland writes. Sacramento Bee file

California has a reputation of being on the cutting edge of clean energy. But the state still clings to old habits – using natural gas to generate electricity – to provide the necessary flexibility to keep the electric grid reliable.

At some point, if the state is serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it cannot have its renewables and its natural gas, too.

The state is well on its way to achieving 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, and new legislation would accelerate this goal to 2025 and set a long-term target of 100 percent renewables by 2045.

Given these ambitious goals, it no longer makes sense to invest in expensive and risky natural gas plants and related infrastructure, thereby forcing communities like Porter Ranch and San Bruno to bear the impacts of methane and other air pollutants, pipeline leaks and natural gas explosions.

The stubborn push to build a natural gas plant in Oxnard is a good example of the state not thinking creatively. The controversial Puente plant – intended to provide emergency power under the unlikely scenario of two downed transmission lines – is vehemently opposed by community residents, who are tired of bearing the impact of natural gas plant pollution.

There are other ways to keep the grid reliable that don’t require combusting fossil fuels. Take the recent announcement that Tesla and Hawaii are teaming up to power the island of Kauai with solar panels and giant battery packs. The solar/battery one-two punch will supply the island with clean energy and provide essential grid reliability services that have traditionally been provided by fossil fuels.

California is already saddled with a surplus of gas plants and should be extremely cautious about increasing its reliance on costly and polluting fossil fuels. This especially doesn’t make sense given the need to dramatically ramp down greenhouse gas emissions to meet our climate pollution reduction goals.

Energy investments made today will be used for decades. Instead of locking us into more outdated natural gas, California should invest in low-carbon technologies that can provide grid reliability without generating pollution or crowding out cleaner sources of electricity, like wind and solar. Fortunately, many of the low-carbon grid management technologies that exist today are capable of offering services faster and more accurately than natural gas plants.

In the case of the proposed Oxnard plant, there are far better methods to ensure the integrity of the grid than building a plant in a disadvantaged community on a beachfront site threatened by sea-level rise. For example, “demand-response” technologies enable consumers to shift energy use to times of the day when renewable energy generation is abundant and inexpensive.

Recent advances in battery technology, combined with demand response and solar power, can absorb and store electricity generation for use when demand is high and supplies are low. And more strategic energy efficiency investments can reduce the need to use gas to meet evening demand spikes.

Finally, because renewables generate power at different times of the day depending on the location and technology, incorporating more wind, geothermal and other renewable sources will create a smoother and more reliable flow of electricity. Increased coordination among grid operators of neighboring states will encourage all electricity resources to be used in the most efficient way and make it easier for other states to accept California’s excess solar on sunny days when our grid has all it needs.

California excels at new technology development, and our economy is a testament to the power of bold, creative thinking. Instead of pushing more conventional natural gas plants, we need to deploy out-of-the-box thinking and make use of the rapidly expanding tools we have to provide a clean and reliable energy future.

Laura Wisland is senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, focusing on developing state policies on renewable energy in California. She can be contacted at