California’s mandate to transition to an all-renewables electricity portfolio has always seemed like a fantasy. A just-released report “charting” the path to 100% clean power does nothing but confirm those suspicions.
A joint summary released March 15 by the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Air Resources Board “is the initial analysis called for in Senate Bill 100,” which became law in 2018 “and calls for these (renewable) resources to replace fossil fuels for generating electricity in the state.”
One of the items that stands out in the summary of the 179-page report is a graphic that shows that “solar and wind build rates need to nearly triple” while “battery storage build rates need to increase by nearly eightfold” if the state is to meet its goal. Ambitious, for sure, improbable, most certainly. Energy analyst Ronald Stein says attaining these targets is a “pipedream.”
“Regarding land for large wind and solar, whoa, Nelly! NIMBYs around the globe, from Germany to Australia, California, New York, and Massachusetts are speaking loudly, and acting, to put a halt to the invasion of noisy wind farms in their backyards,” he tells PRI. “Following numerous reports from Maryland to Canada to France on wind turbine noise, the NIMBYs are becoming energized.”
Both wind and solar farms are voracious consumers of land. They take 90 to 100 times more space to produce the same amount of energy a natural gas-fired plant requires. With nearly 200 gas plants across the state, each taking up on average 20 to 25 acres, another 4,000 to 5,000 acres – roughly six to eight square miles – will have to be dedicated to energy wind and solar production just to continue providing the same amount of electricity.
The joint report also says that “to reach the 2045 target, California will need to roughly triple its current electricity power capacity.” So simply replacing the 200 natural gas plants with wind and solar power is only the beginning of greater land use. Those six to eight square miles are simply a starting point to a significantly enlarged footprint. Yes, California is a vast state. But someone will notice, and someone – the NIMBYs and BANANAs – will try to block construction.
Increased battery storage capacity is another need that seems likely to go unmet. Stein says that according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “every battery energy storage system on planet earth combined is a pittance of what is needed to power a modern city. New York City could use every electrical grid size battery in existence, and would not have enough storage to keep the lights on in the Big Apple for one hour.” Is there good reason to believe the technology will develop fast enough for the politicians and bureaucrats who have made their demands?
Another unsettling point, which the public is supposed to believe is a highlight, assures us that the “modeling of the core scenario for achieving 100% clean electricity showed a 6% increase in total annual electricity system costs by 2045, compared to the estimated cost of achieving 60% renewable electricity by 2030.” A 6% increase is clearly better than a 60% explosion. But is this anything to be bragging about?
Electricity is already outrageously expensive in California. A little more than a year ago, says PRI senior fellow Wayne Winegarden, California’s electricity prices were 57% higher than the U.S. average. By December 2020, they were 66.3% higher, even though “the fixed costs of being a big state did not change between the years – California did not get bigger.”
“What is happening is the policies are driving up costs and decreasing maintenance budgets,” he added. And “the current costs are only a down payment of the full costs from the policies that are being discussed. The costs of electricity will increase further as regulations, such as the push toward 100% EVs, continue to inflate demand while other regulations continue to impose additional costs on generation.”
And of course, from the state authorities we get the now-worn-out claim that “transitioning to a carbon-free electric system will also create thousands of jobs such as manufacturing and installing wind turbines and solar panels and developing new clean energy technologies.”
But just because the claim has become hackneyed doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is, in fact, quite correct, Winegarden wrote in his 2018 study “Legislating Energy Poverty.” Yet it is recklessly deceptive.
“When the government subsidizes any industry, such as renewable energy, these subsidies will create jobs in the industries lucky enough to receive the government largess, or in this case green jobs,” Winegarden explains. “But, this is only part of the story. A complete analysis recognizes that the tax dollars spent subsidizing a favored industry must come from somewhere. The total green jobs created are, by definition, offset by the lost jobs that could have been created had the resources not been diverted toward the favored industries.”
California’s drive toward all-renewables might have the appearance of a well-intentioned agenda that’s too ambitious for its own good. But the bugs in the system were known before the proposal was ever introduced in the Legislature. Policymakers need to learn they can’t will an energy paradise into existence by a simple majority vote and governor’s willing signature.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.