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California’s Zero Carbon Plans: Can Anybody Here Do Basic Arithmetic? NO. – ‘Regulators have absolutely no idea what they are doing’ in quest for ‘100% carbon-emissions-free electricity sector by 2045’

by Francis Menton

In California, as we all know, the inhabitants and their elected officials are far more sophisticated and virtuous than the rest of us rubes who inhabit the other parts of the country. This particularly goes for the arena of climate change, where California is leading the way to saving the planet by rapidly eliminating all of the carbon emissions coming from its electricity sector. California’s CO2 emissions are about 1% of the world annual total, and its electricity sector accounts for about 15% of those emissions, so we’re talking here about approximately 0.15% of world emissions — an amount whose elimination, as you can easily see, will rapidly transform the world’s climate.

In 2018 California enacted a law known as SB100, which mandates a 100% carbon-emissions-free electricity sector by 2045. But how to get from here to there? That question was finally answered in March of this year, when the California state agencies responsible for achieving the goal (California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission, and California Air Resources Board) issued a Joint Agency Report and accompanying Summary Document setting forth their Plans. The Plans can be accessed via this link.

The Plans show that the California regulators have absolutely no idea what they are doing. Perhaps I am wrong. I invite all readers to check me and see if I am missing something. But I don’t think so. Either these people do not understand the basic units used for these calculations, or they cannot do basic arithmetic, or both. In their projection of incremental costs, I think they are off by a factor of about 1000 or more.

The answer given in the Plans as to how to get to a zero emissions electricity sector is to build lots and lots of solar and wind power facilities. Obviously, those don’t work all the time, so to start with you need to build far more capacity than your peak usage. California’s peak power usage is currently about 40 GW, and that is projected to increase substantially as more of the economy gets electrified, for example automobiles. So the Plans call for the addition of some 97.6 GW of solar capacity and 22.6 GW of wind capacity by 2045, on top of 26.5 GW of those two currently existing. (The Plans also call for the addition of 0.1 GW of geothermal capacity, but that is a rounding error.). With the additions, California would have a total of some 146.7 GW of wind and solar capacity, which may be around triple peak usage after you account for incremental electrification of the economy by 2045.

But then solar and wind power are “intermittent,” meaning that they don’t necessarily deliver the power when you need it. What are we going to do about providing power on completely calm nights, when solar and wind deliver nothing? The California regulators have an answer for that here in the Plans, which is “storage.” And how much storage will we need? They give a very specific figure: 52.8 GW. Perhaps that may seem to make sense at first blush. If peak usage is around 50 GW by 2045, then 52.8 GW of storage may be just about enough, with a very small margin, to deliver power at a sufficient rate to satisfy demand when the solar and wind are completely dead.

And how much will all this cost? We’ll be replacing all the current fossil fuel generation with wind and solar facilities, plus adding enough storage to make it all work. Here’s the calculation:

Modeling results indicate that achieving 100 percent clean electricity will increase the total annual electricity system costs by nearly $4.6 billion by 2045. This is 6 percent more than the cost under the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard requirement of having at least 60 percent clean electricity by the end of 2030.

Basically, it’s chump change. After all, “modeling results” prove it.

But are we maybe missing something? Here’s a piece that I think is more than a little significant: All discussion in the Plans of storage needs and capacity is expressed in units of gigawatts (GW). Now, GW of capacity can certainly be relevant in this context, because assuring that power can be delivered from these massive batteries quickly enough to satisfy peak demand is definitely an important engineering challenge. But another whole subject is gigawatt hours (GWH); in other words, is the total amount of energy stored by the system sufficient to carry you through the longest possible period when demand will exceed supply? How about if there are entire seasons — like “winter” — when days are short, cloudiness is high, the wind has extended periods of calm, and batteries could be getting drawn down for weeks or even months on end? How much will you need in the way of GWH of storage capacity to support this entirely-wind-and-solar system; and how much will that cost?

There’s nothing about that subject that I can find in these Plans. Can you find it?

Back in 2018, a guy named Roger Andrews made just such a calculation, and published it at a website called Energy Matters. I covered the subject in a November 2018 post titled “How Much Do The Climate Crusaders Plan To Increase Your Costs Of Electricity? — Part III.” Mr. Andrews used actual daily production data from existing California wind and solar facilities to project how much of such facilities would be needed to satisfy California’s total annual demand over the course of a full year; and then further used the same data to calculate daily surpluses and deficits, to figure out how much battery capacity, in GWH, would be needed to get through the longest period of low production. The most important lesson from Andrews’s work — which emerges from simply looking at the data for actual daily production from existing wind and solar facilities — is that production from these facilities is not just intermittent within a day or a week, but is also highly seasonal, with higher production in the Spring and Fall, and lower production most notably in the winter.

Here is Andrews’s chart showing production from existing wind and solar facilities, normalized to satisfy all demand over the course of a year, plotted against actual demand on a daily basis:

California electricity supply and demand.png
The large Spring surpluses and Winter deficits leap out at the eye. Andrews then calculated — and this is purely a matter of simple arithmetic — daily surpluses and deficits to figure out how much battery capacity California would need to carry it through a full year. Here are his charts showing that work:

California energy storage balance wind:solar system.png
The bottom line is that it would take about 25,000 GWH of stored energy to get through the full year. The batteries would get to that level around August, and get drawn down all the way through March. And of course, that’s at a peak usage of about 40 GW. Ramp that up to more like 50 GW peak usage, and you’ll need more like 32,000 GWH of storage.

So how much will that cost? In my November 2018 post, the answer for California was “around $5 trillion.” Let’s see if we can get a more up-to-date figure. According to this post at Electrek on April 1, 2021, Apple — in an effort to demonstrate its extreme corporate climate virtue — plans to construct a gigantic battery project to enable its corporate headquarters to run on just solar power. From Apple’s press release:

“Apple is constructing one of the largest battery projects in the country, California Flats — an industry-leading, grid-scale energy storage project capable of storing 240 megawatt-hours of energy, enough to power over 7,000 homes for one day. This project supports the company’s 130-megawatt solar farm that provides all of its renewable energy in California, by storing excess energy generated during the day and deploying it when it is most needed.”

The batteries are being supplied by Tesla. Based on pricing data from Tesla, indicating cost of such batteries in the range of $200 – $300 per kilowatt hour, Electrek calculates Apple’s cost for the 240 MWH of battery capacity as about $50 million. So what then would be the cost for 32,000 gigawatt hours worth of these batteries? You do the math. If it helps, there are a million KWH in one GWH. I’m getting about $6.7 trillion.

$6.7 trillion is well more than double the annual GDP of California. Remember that the Plans of California’s joint agency task force said that the incremental costs of the all-wind-and-solar-plus-storage system were going to run around $4.6 billion. Could they really be off by a factor of well over 1000?

Meanwhile, California marches forward with big additions to its grid battery capacity, supposedly to balance the grid in light of additions of solar and wind power. But are the additions meaningful to that task, or remotely cost effective? Here is a post from RenewEconomy on April 5:

A recent report published by Bloomberg Green citing new BloombergNEF numbers revealed that the leading power analysts expect California to not only install 1.7GW worth of new battery storage in 2021, but another 1.4GW in 2022 followed by 1.2GW in 2023.

Always GW, never GWH. Trying to get any useful information out of these people is almost impossible. I think they are all completely innumerate. Out of 40 million people in California, isn’t there a single person who can even ask a relevant question?

My view continues to be that the best thing that could happen for the country and the world would be for these people to try to build out their utopia as fast as humanly possible, and have it crash and burn quickly for all to see and learn from. Or maybe they will succeed. I certainly wish them the best, but on all the evidence they have no idea what they are doing.