For a reliable grid, California must capture and store wind and solar energy

By Alex Morris for Cal Matters

In the October fires, millions of Californians have experienced the consequences of unprecedented power outages.

When winds whipped up to record speeds in areas with dry grass and unprotected power lines, utilities concluded the only answer power grid operators had was to shut off electricity to millions.

The rain is here now, but for the families and businesses affected by power shutoffs, the memory is vivid.

Unfortunately, when our electric grid was built decades ago, no one foresaw how climate change would increase fire danger to create the conditions for these large-scale shutoffs. Now, even people in urban areas risk losing power or risk losing their homes to extreme wildfires.

What can we learn from this situation, and what can we do?

Accelerating the uses and deployments of energy storage is an obvious first step that can help mitigate the impact of future power shut-offs and reduce emissions that contribute to our changing climate. Planning for a grid that utilizes energy storage should start now.

Our state is building an electricity grid powered increasingly by clean energy. We have the goal of providing 60% of our electricity from renewable sources by the end of this decade. By 2045, we plan to have weaned ourselves from fossil fuels entirely, relying 100% on clean, renewable sources like wind and solar.

One of the biggest challenges these goals face is that renewable energy sources can be intermittent and unreliable. We’ll need to capture and shift the output of solar or wind energy for running the grid cleanly.

Fortunately, storage solutions are queueing up to keep our lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Building energy storage will allow the grid to hang on to excess electricity when we have an abundance during long, sunny summer days. These systems then release the stored energy when more power is needed on the grid such as on windless nights.

Currently, that gap in power is filled with quick-ramping fossil fuel plants. We will need to end our reliance on them if we have any chance of meeting our climate goals.

Investing in new energy storage is crucial. And the needs are sizeable. We need to get started right away.

Wind turbines along highway 580. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The California Public Utilities Commission has identified massive storage needs of all types and duration. The amounts of storage needed just in the next decade will equate to a dozen or more conventional power plants.

Building a diverse array of storage can keep the lights on during both normal conditions and, within reason, during difficult public safety power outage periods.

Fortunately, storage solutions are available today. In fact, multiple energy storage options are available, including various types of batteries, compressed air, pumped hydro, and thermal energy storage.

No one wants to live in the future in which mercurial weather conditions hamper our quality of life or shutter businesses because there isn’t enough power to keep the lights on.

The decisions we make today will determine how we live tomorrow. California’s future can be powered by both renewable and reliable energy, but we must have the foresight to make the right investments in storage capacity now.

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