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Integrating The Western Grid Can Help Power the State with California Solar

Tuesday, May 16 2017

Sean Gallagher

As more solar is installed in California, the state continues to hit new records for solar energy production. On March 11th, California's solar power supplied more than half of the state's electricity. Expect these records to continue. We’ll need them.

In a little more than a decade, renewables will need to account for more than 50% of electricity for the entire year to meet our renewable energy and climate goals. Last year large solar plants and rooftop solar together produced about 13% of the state’s energy.

One challenge to meeting our clean energy and climate goals is how our electricity system operates, relying on 20th century institutions and infrastructure.  Some days this spring over 10% of solar electricity on cool sunny days has been lost to “curtailment,” when solar plants reduce their production due to oversupply of electricity caused by an inflexible electricity system. Remarkably, as renewable energy curtailment occurs, inefficient fossil fuel generators continue to run. In the near term this is a minor issue. But we need to get changes in place now to meet our climate goals and ensure that remaining fossil plants support renewables, rather than limiting their operation. Better integrating the fragmented grid in the West is one key to making sure the state continues to break records for solar generated in state and keep us on track for our goals.

By fully integrating our electricity grid throughout the Western region, we can create a larger and more transparent marketplace, in which costly coal and gas-fired power plants must compete fairly with their cleaner counterparts like solar energy producers. With a well-integrated regional grid, we’ll be able to efficiently dispatch affordable emissions-free energy from where the sun is shining or the wind is blowing to where electricity is needed.

The integration of the western grid is one part of a broader strategy. Indeed, our national laboratories have shown how we can power California with 50% of its energy coming from in-state solar, assuming we use all of the tools at our disposal within the state.  These tools include electrifying our buildings and transportation to meet our climate goals; making our fossil power plants more flexible; and designing electricity rates that incentivize customers to use energy when it is cleanest, most abundant (and least expensive).

The West is already taking some needed first steps towards greater integration. The agency which oversees our grid, the California Independent System Operator, (CAISO) operates a regional energy imbalance market, which helps to balance grids on a real-time, minute-by-minute basis. But to realize the full potential of an expanded energy marketplace, and reach our full in state renewable potential, we must create an integrated regional grid.

This doesn’t mean that California and other states have to build new transmission lines — the infrastructure is already there to make a regional market work. It’s the institutions that need to change. The next step is for the California Legislature to authorize the CAISO to  begin the transition to a fully independent board for an independent grid operator that all Western utilities and generators would have the opportunity to join.

SEIA is one of a number of voices calling for a regional grid. We are proud to be joined by other clean energy advocates, environmentalists, small business and public interest groups in urging the California Legislature to take the first step toward a fully integrated Western grid. Doing so will prevent us from limiting solar and wind energy, will reduce electricity costs for our homes and businesses and will create new good-paying jobs across California.

What could be more sunny than that?

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