California Energy Dreamin’ vs. California Energy Reality

peer reviewed health - Tom Shepstone ReportsTom Shepstone
Shepstone Management Company, Inc.


California political correctness knows no limits but California energy dreamin’ certainly does, proving, yet again, renewables need natural gas to grow.

California has to be America’s most spectacularly beautiful state but it’s politics are as bat crazy as they get and it’s the font of all political correctness. It’s energy policies have always been bizarre, as when it only deregulated one-half of the electricity market so as to make itself more dependent on energy imports. It dreams of being a totally renewable energy state, too, but the reality is quite different, which may be the reason even Governor Jerry Brown, no slouch when it comes to PC stuff, supports fracking. The California energy future may include a lot of renewables but it’ll take more natural gas to get there.

What I’m talking about is a story from Today In Energy. Authored by Owen Comstock, it lays out the hard facts in a non-ideological way. First, there is this interesting chart:

california energy

Thermal generation is electricity produced at California power plants, almost all of which comes from natural gas. Much of the imported electricity, obviously, also comes from natural gas powered generation plants. Here’s the rundown via some excerpts from the article (emphasis added):

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the entity responsible for maintaining the balance between supply and demand for electricity throughout most of the state, operates in a setting where demand peaks in the late afternoon or early evening on summer days. Because of differences in the hourly output of certain electricity generators, some of which are nearly constant (nuclear) and some of which can vary considerably during the day (solar, wind), output from thermal generators (mainly natural gas) and electricity imports from other regions are used to balance overall electricity supply and demand in the region.

Thermal generation in CAISO, almost all of which is natural gas, contributes the largest share of electricity generation in CAISO and has the widest range in hourly generation. Based on hourly data in June, July, and August, on the average summer day in 2016, in-region thermal power output ranged between 7.3 gigawatts and 15.2 gigawatts (GW). Over the entire summer, hourly thermal power output was as high as 25.6 GW at 5:00 p.m. on July 27, when total system demand was high, and was as low as 2.6 GW at 9:00 a.m. on June 12, an hour when demand was relatively low and renewables output was relatively high…

Some renewable fuels have more variable levels of output, particularly wind and solar. Most of CAISO’s utility-scale solar generation comes from solar photovoltaic systems, whose output is dependent on solar insolation (exposure to the sun) during daylight hours. The CAISO area includes a few solar thermal facilities, some of which have energy storage that allows them to produce electricity after the sun has gone down, but these generators make up a relatively small portion of CAISO’s solar output. On an average summer day, utility-scale solar output ranged from 0 GW to 7.6 GW, the largest range among renewable fuels and the only fuel to have many hours without any output. CAISO’s data do not include distributed solar generation sources, which reduce the net electric load that needs to be met by utility-scale generators…

Wind generators provided about 2.2 GW on average, but they ranged from near zero (0.06 GW) to more than 4 GW several times during the summer. Wind output is often at its lowest point during the middle of the day, when solar output is near its highest. Geothermal, biomass, biogas, and small hydroelectric facilities had lower but more consistent output with relatively small differences between their highest and lowest hourly output.

Electricity imports are another option to supplement electricity produced by in-region sources to balance total supply with system load. Data from EIA’s new electric system operating tool show electricity trades among different balancing authorities. CAISO imports electricity from nearby regions such as the Northwest and Southwest. On an average summer day, these imports range between 6.5 GW and 9.4 GW.

So, here are the take-home points:

  1. Solar and wind energy are unable at times to deliver any electricity generation. There are calm and dark times when we still need electricity, so something else has to be used then.
  2. Natural gas and imports carry the bulk of the load and they can be dispatched as needed, any time of the day, under virtually any conditions.
  3. The variability of solar and wind, especially solar, is huge, meaning increased dependence on them will necessitate ever more natural gas capacity to produce electricity to make up for lost energy when they go to zero.
  4. Increased use of solar and wind will also necessitate more imports of electricity in the future, making California ever more dependent on others if it does not build more natural gas powered electric generation facilities.
  5. Building more natural gas powered electric generation facilities will demand more natural gas. It can only be economically delivered through fracking. Hence, the Governor’s support of the technology.
  6. California cannot afford to depend on other states to provide its electricity and the infrastructure required to bring it there is a whole other issue. That’s why electric rates there have escalated so over the years. Regulatory tricks will do little to change it. Moreover, the massive subsidies required for solar and wind, despite lowered costs of equipment manufacturing, mean Californians will pay more no matter which they go – unless it’s natural gas.
  7. Natural gas powered electricity generation is the only way to balance the load economically and still allow renewables to grow. It also means they can grow with fewer subsidies because the blended net cost of electricity is made lower by natural gas use.

California can dream all it wants but the California energy future will most definitely include more natural gas use if renewables are to grow and costs are to be kept under control. Only fracking will make that possible.


Los Esteros Critical Energy Facility in California, a combined-cycle generation facility capable of generating up to 309 megawatts of electricity.


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2 thoughts on “California Energy Dreamin’ vs. California Energy Reality

  1. Natural gas powered electricity generation is the only way to balance the load economically and still allow renewables to grow. It also means they can grow with fewer subsidies because the blended net cost of electricity is made lower by natural gas use.

    This is why Killing Nuclear Power in CA the goal. Emissions from Gas to balance Renewables makes people happy, but Raises Emissions.

    Nuclear is the most economic way to reduce emissions.

  2. Without solar’s 30% federal investment tax credit (ITC) and wind’s $0.023 per kWh federal production tax credit (PTC), some parts of the U.S. are unlikely to see grid parity for renewables within the next 10 to 15 years, according to the study.

    The price of gas was as low as $2.59 per million British Thermal Units (mmBTU) in 2015 due to an abundance of shale gas resources. Rising consumption in the residential and commercial-industrial sectors and a boost in liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports is seen as driving new demand that will push the prices to $4.37 per mmBTU in 2020, $5.26 in 2025, and $6.10 in 2030.

    Compare EIA’s 2011 levelized costs [$/MWHr] Solar PV = 114.3 to Natural Gas Combined Cycle = 65.6.

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