Climate Change IQ Question 6: Why can’t all States emulate California’s proposed “clean” energy standards?

Answer: Because they can’t all import one-third of their electricity. Somebody has to generate it.

California aspires to lead the world to a “clean, renewable” energy future by legislative fiat: 100% renewable by 2045.

That would be a gargantuan feat. As the table below [1] shows, 55% of the electricity California now uses comes from hydrocarbon (HC) sources: coal, petroleum and (mostly) natural gas. California generates only 68% of its own electricity, and half of that is from hydrocarbons. About one-third of its electricity comes from other states, and of that only 20% is from renewables.

California boasts of its preeminence in solar and wind generation—but not so much of its high costs. Residential electricity rates are 15.3 cents per kWh, compared with the national average of 11.88 cents per kWh. Commercial rates are 13.41 cents per kWh, versus the national average of 10.09.

At the time of the recent solar eclipse, grid operators across the country conducted “a balancing act of high-tension electricity choreography” to keep California’s lights on. And of course darkness occurs every night, and wind turbines generate nothing when the wind is not blowing or blowing too fast. What will happen if California destroys its hydrocarbon baseload capacity?

A “moonshot”-size project would be needed to develop better batteries to convert excess electricity into chemical energy and back again. It has been estimated that 300 times the 2013 worldwide annual production capacity for lithium batteries would be needed to store enough electricity to supply Germany, a small country, for one week of windless, cloudy days.

Still, California’s Governor Jerry Brown has expressed an interest in also banning the sale of vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine. This would require even more batteries and electrical generating capacity. And imagine being in a traffic jam evacuating before a California wildfire or Florida hurricane—in an electric car!

Thanks to opposition from public utilities and the electrical workers union, a bill to approve the 100% renewable energy goal failed. This setback is claimed to be “far from fatal” to the clean energy push—even though the state” will also need to modify or replace more than 50 percent of its infrastructure to support the use of renewables.”

While California may claim to be clean itself, the environmental impact of mining the materials needed to generate and store its renewable power are devastating. [2]

Take-home lessons:

  • Electricity cannot be carried in a bucket or gas can.
  • Electricity must be used as generated. Adequate capacity to convert it into another form, such as chemical energy in batteries, does not currently exist.
  • While importing electricity, California will export much of the environmental pollution from the mining of materials needed to manufacture solar cells, wind turbines, and batteries.

References: 

  1. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Available at: https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=CA#tabs-4.
  2. Taylor J. Batteries impose hidden environmental costs for wind and solar power. Forbes, Aug 17, 2017.

Printable PDF of Question 6: https://goo.gl/HMQMMs

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