Balancing renewable energy in an electricity grid is like catching rainwater; you need to capture it or it will slip through your fingers. And if your bucket’s full, you have to pour it into another container or it will land on the ground. California isn’t catching too much rain lately, but it is generating a lot of renewable energy. Sometimes the Golden State produces so much clean power that grid operators have to take solar generators offline. One of the ways the state could fix this problem is by establishing a western regional power grid that could use some of California’s renewable energy. However, political agendas hinder cross-state power flows.
Some Background: Renewable Energy & the Intermittency Problem
Renewable energy is blazing its way to the forefront of new power generation and is critical to meeting global climate targets. However, incorporating renewable energy into America’s outdated power grid is a challenge for three reasons.
First, solar panels and windmills, unlike coal or gas power plants, generate different amounts of energy depending on how sunny or windy it is. Without conventional energies, Warriors fans looking to watch a basketball game on a windless cloudy day would be out of luck. So California currently has to keep natural gas on the backburner to easily ramp power up or down to meet demand.
Second, battery storage technology, which could fix renewable energy’s intermittent power problem, is currently too expensive to deploy on a large scale (though experts estimate cost could fall 70 percent by 2031).
Third, America’s power grid is separated into regional networks that use alternating-current (AC) transmission lines. Both the disjoint network and the AC lines (which lose electricity when it’s transported long distances) make it difficult to move renewable energy across the country. If the U.S. connected scattered energy networks into one cohesive web and updated the power lines with High Voltage Direct-Current (HVDC) alternatives (which transport electricity more efficiently than AC lines), experts estimate the country could overcome the challenge of renewable energy fluctuations and ramp up clean power to reduce electricity-related CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2030 (from 1990 levels).
Politics Get in the Way
California is the only state in the mainland Western United States with a cohesive Independent System Operator (ISO) to manage power flows. The rest rely on 38 separate small scale “balancing area authorities” (BAAs). A unified electricity grid would require transmission line updates and alterations, but would provide substantial emissions reductions for the region and save ratepayers between $1.8 billion and $6.8 billion in the first 20 years, a recent study shows.
If a shared power grid would reduce emissions and save money over time, why aren’t all Western states hoping on board?
Some power generators in states like Wyoming and Utah use coal to turn the lights on, which California doesn’t want to include in its climate-conscious energy mix. Additionally, officials from those states fear that a unified grid could be bad for local energy companies.
“California policies, whether you like them or not, are going to be exported throughout the entire West, and all of us in the West are going to be importing California policies,” Bill Russell, Wyoming’s Public Service Commissioner, told NPR.
As Rocky Mountain Power’s CEO, Cyndy Crane, put it “Politics, at the end of the day, are going to be the biggest obstacle…I think it [a connected grid] has a better shot, but there are some pretty big threshold issues to get through.”