Yale and Rocky Mountain Institute Invent An Energy Surplus in California

In a recent radio segment produced by Yale Climate Connections, Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change and Leia Guccione of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) portray California as a state with excess energy resources. In reality, this isn’t true.

Dr. Leiserowitz claims that California has “more energy than the state can use,” and attributes part of that surplus to the growing solar, wind and other renewable generation capacity in the state. Both he and Guccione attribute this excess to two seasonal factors.

First, Guccione claims that solar production surges in the summer because the sun stays up longer each day. Dr. Leiserowitz then notes that hydropower production often rises in the spring as a result of seasonal rains and snowmelt but energy demand also drops as fewer people are heating their homes.

In fact, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC), the state’s electrical generation is not increasing. California’s total system electric generation dropped to 290,567 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in 2016 from 295,405 GWh in the prior year. However, in the same timespan, renewables generation grew, producing 50 percent of California’s power in 2016, up from 40 percent in 2015. Moreover, nearly a third of California’s power – over 92,000 GWh out of the total 290,000 GWh – had to be imported from out-of-state generators.

Despite all these data, Dr. Leiserowitz tries to pin the “surplus” – for which he offers no calculation – on natural gas production:

“New natural gas power plants are also contributing to the energy surplus. To keep from overloading its electrical grid, the state is selling – or in extreme cases – paying other states to take its excess energy.”

So a state with too much electricity increased renewable generation so much in one year that renewables took 10 percent of the energy mix from other fuels at the same time that a third of the state’s power had to be produced elsewhere? No. If California had a legitimate oversupply of electricity, the state wouldn’t be bolstering its renewables capacity like crazy and spending a fortune on power supplied by surrounding states.

And about those “new natural gas power plants.” The CEC reported that in 2016 gas-fired generation decreased from 129,750 GWh in 2015 to 105,992 GWh in 2016. So Yale and RMI must be dreaming up their claims of additional gas-fired capacity contributing to the “surplus.”

Having too much electricity one day because the sun was shining on solar panels while melting so much snow as to increase output at a hydroelectric dam? That doesn’t constitute an energy surplus; that constitutes a day that California can unplug from Oregon and save consumers a few dollars on their utility bills.

What about the days when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, or there’s less water running through dams because of drought? Then it’s a good time to turn on the natural gas plants, especially since fluctuating solar, wind and hydroelectric power can’t yet be stored in sufficient quantities to offset so much as a partial solar eclipse. Fracking to the rescue, in other words.

No matter how you slice the data, California is an energy island that currently has to import much of its electricity from outside the state. Additional solar, wind and hydro alone are not enough to offset both California’s electrical import requirements (at least until we increase in-state production) and volatile weather affecting renewable energy output. Natural gas is and will always be there to keep the lights on – and charge the electric car you’ll have to buy in a few years.




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