California takes an aggressive approach to clean energy to ensure its future

California has always been at the forefront of combating climate change in the U.S., but recent devastating wildfires and droughts have indicated the extent to which the state will be affected by the phenomenon — and the need to take urgent action.

California has always been at the forefront of combating climate change in the U.S., but recent devastating wildfires and droughts have indicated the extent to which the state will be affected by the phenomenon — and the need to take urgent action.

Last fall, California Governor Jerry Brown signed two pieces of legislation that showcase the state’s commitment to combating climate change. One, a bill passed by the state legislature, pledges California to 100% use of zero-carbon electricity by 2045. The second, an executive order, commits the state to complete carbon neutrality by 2045. With these measures in place, California is positioning itself as the leader in America’s renewable energy transformation. The state has long been known for its forward-thinking policies, but its ambitious plans to tackle climate change also are driven by a recognition that failure to confront the issue compromises the state’s future. 

A sense of urgency

California is already seeing the effects of climate change. Devastating wildfires have ravaged the state in recent years, challenging the traditional utility model. In 2017, the Thomas Fire — the largest-ever fire in California’s history — cost the state a record $702 million in firefighting alone. And the situation could get worse. According to a statement from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, “Wildfire occurrence state-wide could increase several folds by the end of the century, increasing fire suppression and emergency response costs and damage to property.”

Water shortages and drought have also become persistent issues. From 2012 to 2016, California experienced one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. It cost the economy several billion dollars, strained local infrastructure and highlighted how dramatically climate change will affect California’s future. The result is a sense of urgency on the ground, pushing policymakers and industry to work together on climate change mitigation and prevention solutions, including renewable energy. 

Bruce Nilles, a Managing Director at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), says that new technologies are critical to achieving California’s renewable energy goals. Nilles cites solar power, heat pumps and energy efficiency as the key technologies he’s seeing deployed across the state. As these technologies come online, they drive renewable energy costs down across the board. 

One place to see new technology cost saving in action is the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. In July 2019, the city’s municipal utility, Glendale Water & Power (GWP), officially dropped a $500 million gas peaker project in favour of a diverse clean energy portfolio. Glendale’s final portfolio repowers the local Grayson Power Plant with a 75-megawatt/300-megawatt-hour Tesla battery installation and up to 93 megawatts of fast-ramping Wärtsilä engines. These additions will allow the system flexibility to handle the imbalance between power demand and renewable energy production over the course of the day — a phenomenon known as the “duck curve.” Eventually, GWP expects to convert the Wärtsilä engines to run on biogas, renewable natural gas or even hydrogen, depending on those fuels’ commercial maturation. 

By pivoting away from a gas generation plant, Glendale — and California more broadly — is taking a critical step toward a fully renewable electricity future.

Storing up for the future

Mark Specht, an energy analyst for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees that expanding the use of renewable energy sources is critical to a carbon-neutral future, but says that the key technology for moving the process forward is energy storage.

California is currently making serious investments in energy storage, with several projects with storage capability of more than 100 megawatts in the planning stages.  

“These energy storage projects help make renewable energy more useful — in that there are some times of the day that renewable energy is over generated and can be stored in batteries. They also make it more stable and able to replace traditional fuel sources, specifically gas generation,” Specht says.

Using technology to overcome hurdles

The push for renewables in California is not without challenges, however. Specht says that figuring out how the state’s cash-strapped utilities can pay for aggressive investments in renewables are a major issue. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility, is currently in bankruptcy proceedings because it faces billions of dollars in lawsuits related to last year’s wildfires. 

There are also technological hurdles. Andrew Tang, Vice President of Energy Storage, Solar and Integration at Wärtsilä, notes that solving renewable energy’s intermittency issues requires technology that ensures continuity and stability. There are options, though. Tang points to a Wärtsilä project in Pomona that features a 20-megawatt, 80-megawatt hour lithium-ion energy storage project as proof that utilities can move away from gas generation while ensuring the reliability that customers expect.

A better future for all

Nilles contends that by continuing to lead on climate change and renewable energy, California can serve as an inspiration and model for other states — and countries. As a major economic force in both the U.S. and globally, the state’s decisions can inspire global action to solve the climate crisis.

Justin Sha, an Assembly District Delegate for the California Democratic Party from Fremont, is excited to see his state leading on renewable energy. “California is at the nation's forefront in terms of environmental innovation,” Sha says. “Transitioning to renewable energy technologies is critical to ensuring our state's competitiveness in international markets. Moreover, investing in renewable technologies is the same as investing in our future.” 

Mark Specht adds that an equitable renewable energy transition has the potential to benefit everyone, including historically marginalised low-income and minority communities, through new employment opportunities, economic development, and pollution reduction.

Written by
Lorelei Yang
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency