California’s electrical grid was pushed to unprecedented limits recently as the state suffered through a record-breaking heat wave and wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres across the already parched Golden State.
At least one segment of California’s power grid drew special attention — solar energy, which comprises about 15 percent of California’s power needs.
Solar-generated power has long been viewed by experts as an effective way — perhaps the most effective — to wean society from fossil-based fuels and curb climate-changing carbon emissions.
“Solar is working beautifully and we just need to add onto it by making making the sun shine at night through batteries.” — Bernadette Del Chiaro
“The amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in and hour and a half is enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a full year,” notes the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
There is one issue plaguing solar energy: darkness. When the sun sets, solar panels’ abilities to gather and deploy solar energy is depleted until it rises the next morning. Similarly, cloud cover can harm homeowners and businesses that rely on solar energy and panels as the sun is temporarily.
But there may be an answer to that problem, too.
Solar energy is electromagnetic radiation (light) emitted by the sun and subsequently captured by solar energy technologies — solar panels, for example — and transformed into useful energy to power everything from air conditioners to automobiles.
“Solar is working beautifully and we just need to add onto it by making making the sun shine at night through batteries,” says Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA), which represents about 700 companies. “It’s a matter of not enough batteries.”
The Labor Day weekend temperature spike saw Californians receiving health and safety warnings regarding staying inside, as well as recommendations to use less power throughout the hottest times of the day to lessen stress on the overburdened energy grid.
The use of solar batteries could alleviate strain on the grid.
Solar batteries would allow consumers and businesses to collect and store solar energy during the day when the sun is high and solar energy is plentiful. These batteries would then be able to be utilized at night when the sun sets and solar energy is no longer being collected. The increase in solar battery storage solves the problem of a lack of sunlight, as well as the problems arisen by cloud cover, when sunlight is not as present.
The downside is that batteries are costly, though they likely will come down in price as more are developed. According to one estimate, house batteries currently range from $8,500 to $10,000, plus installation.
An estimated extra $450 million, in comparison to a normal day, was spent during Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Del Chiaro says the way to increase the demand and accessibility of solar batteries is through policy changes.
“Give the consumer or utility, whomever, a leg up in affording the battery,” she added. “You can get economies of scale on the supply side and bring down prices. It’s exactly what we did for solar panels. It worked perfectly. We need to do the same thing for batteries.”
An expanded use of batteries couldn’t come at a better time.
Amid the extended heat wave of triple-digit temperatures, California’s power grid was stressed to record levels, exceeding the previous record in 2006.
Californians were told to reduce their energy usage during peak hours, such as between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., to reduce their strain on the energy grid during the sweltering week. The power grid administrator, California ISO, recommended homeowners to “avoid using major appliances” and to turn off any unnecessary lights. Additionally, they suggested to turn the thermostat closer to 72 degrees during nonpeak hours, then to raise it to around 78 degrees during peak energy hours to lessen the energy stress when it’s needed most.
ISO, the California Independent Systems Operator (ISO) manages tens of thousands of transmission lines to serve the energy grid of 80% of California and even a part of Nevada. California ISO works to make energy accessible and transparent enough to reach the state’s ever-rising demand, all while increasing the amount of renewable energy attainable by consumers.
“The problems with electricity supplies and electricity costs are all fossil fuel-derived and renewables are the way out of this mess,” Del Chiaro says. “PG&E, So-Cal Edison and Sempra, they’re the three musketeers standing in the way of this tremendous potential to grow solar and battery.”
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), incorporated in 1905, is “one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the United States.” It services 70,000 square miles in northern and central California to 16 million people through its 23,000 employees. Southern California Edison is an electric utility company powering 15 million across central and southern California. Sempra is an energy infrastructure company that serves more than 40 million customers in North America and worldwide.
An estimated extra $450 million, in comparison to a normal day, was spent during Tuesday, Sept. 6, on additional electricity to satisfy the grid’s demand, CALSSA says. The organization contended the investment could’ve been better spent on consumer batteries that would last over a decade, rather than this single-day purchase.
California is ranked first in solar energy across the nation with 37,086 installed megawatts that can power over 10 million homes, as of the second quarter of 2022, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). There have been 1.5 million solar installations, all while the price of solar dropped by 53% from 2012 to 2022. The state provided nearly 76,000 solar jobs in 2021.
The SEIA looks to transform the U.S. to a clean energy economy through reliable and low-cost solar power with over 1000 attached member companies.
California is definitely not in short demand of energy. The peak energy demand forecast for Sept, 6, the hottest day of California’s 2022 heatwave, was a record 52,000 megawatts. CALSSA says over 80,000 “customer-sited batteries” were connected to the grid and providing power during the week when it was needed most.
“These consumer investments in clean energy played a crucial role during this week’s heat wave helping keep the light on not just for the homeowners and businesses who made the investment but for everyone,” Del Chiaro said in a CALSSA press release.
As stresses on the grid continued, the fires did not let up: Gov. Gavin Newsom declared states of emergency in the counties of Riverside, Placer and El Dorado in response to the growing wildfires. Burning 19,000 acres as of the announcement of Gov. Newsom’s state of emergency and over 28,000 as of Sept. 14, the Fairview fire initially received federal assistance on Sept. 6 in anticipation of the heatwave’s strain on the energy grid.
As of Friday, the Mosquito Fire alone burned 70,000 acres and forced the evacuations of 11,000 people, according to CalFire at fire.ca.gov, while the several other fires were all active with over 13,000 combined acres burned.
Editor’s Note: Liam Gravvat is a Capitol Weekly intern from Sacramento State.