California’s Solar Energy Problem

I’m sticking out my neck a bit in commenting on this detailed analysis of California’s current and likely future energy mix, and why its heavy emphasis on solar is not a good idea. The video is short and information-rich, making good use of graphics, and a lot of the data displays would be lost in a transcript, so it’s worth watching.

However, because it is so data driven, it buries its conclusions. The video shows that over-reliance on solar undermines its economic attractiveness because it requires too much in the way of storage, both to shift supply to peak demand times during the day, as well as over the course of the year. A second issue is that the lack of enough in the way of a steady base supply. That results from the planned phase-out of nuclear, which currently supplies about 15% of California’s power, and antipathy for the environmental costs of large-scale hydro. That means that solar capacity will be overbuilt, due to the need to provide sufficient supply in the winter and to allow for long stretches of cloudy days. That means at times where there is a lot of sun, the panels won’t be collecting energy anywhere near their capacity (the video also stresses that batteries can’t store energy over long periods of time and this is a critically important area for further development).

Comments on YouTube pointed out an error at 2:20. Per David Hermes:

556 MW is NOT a storage capacity. It’s the power the facility is able to provide. Rated at four hours, the total capacity is 2,27 GWh.

That means the cost of storage would be much higher than the $3 trillion estimated. It would be over four times as costly.

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  1. vlade

    I never really understood the antipathy to large-scale hydro. Sure, it does have bad impact on environment (and often not only locally, as the dams affect everything below them). A lot of this though can be dealt with IMO. Unlike the environmental impacts of coal, gas, etc. etc., which are way less concentrated overall (except in the extraction areas).

    The fact is that any power source we use will have environmental impact. We can only make a choice, which one we prefer. There is only true “no environmental impact” choice and that’s to die out as a species, because anything living has an environmental impact (and even us dying off would have an impact..).

    I wonder when, if ever, will the human race grow up and start realizing it is making choices whether it wants or not, and start actually thinking about those choices. Given how few of the actual purported “adult” memebers of the race are able to do so, I have my doubts.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I can’t comment on the clip, I can’t open youtube right now, but as regards hydro, there is really ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hydro. Its devastating to many rivers, but it can be done right. In Bhutan, which has massive hydro capacity they now insist on ‘run of the river’ schemes which are far less environmentally damaging than traditional impoundments (the first couple of conventional schemes they did were horribly damaging). A lot of hydro schemes can also usefully be converted to large scale storage without much difficulty – as with the Barragem do Alqueva in Portugal. Micro hydro has a lot of potential in many areas, cumulatively they can add up to a lot of power without necessarily causing damage. They combine very well with solar energy in remote areas such as in upland India.

      That said, almost all the rivers that can provide really large amounts of baseline power around the world have already pretty much been dammed already.

      1. vlade

        I can’t open the clip either, I was commenting on part of Yves’s sentence (which is an attitude I saw elsewhere too), and how it seems to me that often when you show possibilities, some environmental types find a problem with all of those, so none is good enough. But “none of the above” is not really a solution here.

        Otherwise, I agree with both of your points…

      2. Grumpy Engineer


        I suspect you already know this, but for other readers, I’ll note that “run of the river” schemes for hydro have a major technical disadvantage when compared to the traditional impoundment: With the traditional dam, you have a fair amount of control over what time of day you release energy from the reservoir. If your solar assets are already producing too much power, then you can let water pile up behind the dam and then release it after sunset, when the power produced is most useful. There are obviously limits to the approach (based on the size of the reservoir, incoming water flow rates, and maximum permissible downstream flow), but hydroelectric dams can essentially be operated as peakers, producing their power when it’s most useful.

        In a “run of the river scheme”, you can’t save energy for later. You can only produce power at that moment based on the flow you have at that moment, or you can curtail. Overall utilization factors would go down accordingly. In terms of keeping the grid up, “run of the river” is distinctly less useful than traditional dams. If we deployed it widely in place of dams, we’d need more energy storage than ever before.

        And alas, your final comment is quite accurate. All of the good sites for hydro have been used already. We can’t rely on hydro to save us.

        1. L

          And to follow up on that case in California and other states the “good” sites have been used for bad setups (e.g. Lake Powell) meaning not only do they lack options for new development but they have other problems to deal with.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          People can lower their collective and individual use of electricity down to what the various environmentally tolerable and bearable sources can supply. If they don’t want to do that “sooner”, then they can just let the eventual collapse of civilization do it for them “later”.

          The insistence on using into the future the quantities of electricity to which people have become accustomed in the present is an infantile insistence. It will be denied by nature. People can either grow up or die. Believe it now or believe it later.

        3. Wisdom Seeker

          Many rivers support multiple hydro installations, such as Feather River in California. Those can be treated as integrated systems. In this case, run-of-river systems downstream from a dam are effectively gated much as the dam is, albeit with a delay for the flow to arrive, and with slower rise time and fall-time.

          P.S. I don’t believe that “all the good sites for hydro have been used already”, particularly for run-of-river. What counts as “good” depends on price, technology and local demand (population) which shift over the long term. Sites which were marginal in low-population areas during the cheap-fossil era may become viable, especially with a bit of technical creativity. Canada in particular has a lot of untapped capacity, and one would assume Russia as well for the same reasons. If energy genuinely becomes scarce, some users will relocate to where the supply is. Cheap hydropower was a big driver for industrialization of New England and upstate New York, after all.

          1. Math is Your Friend

            “Canada in particular has a lot of untapped capacity”

            It is not clear how useful it may be, however.

            The farther you have to move the power, the greater the costs and the losses. Potential hydro power in the Yukon doesn’t do much for Ontario or Quebec, which together represent 61.5% of the total national population (2016 census). Putting transmission lines where there are no roads is costly, and more so when the terrain is difficult… muskeg is likely to cause a myriad of problems.

            For that matter, Whitehorse to Toronto (main city of the Golden Horseshoe, which holds 21% of Canada’s population), is more than 4,000 km by air, with not much but wilderness for most of the way.

            Remember that most of the population is in about 6% of the land area, and much of the rest is primarily accessible by air… not the best scenario for building power plants, or transmission lines. There’s a reason the archetypal Canadian aircraft is a bush plane on floats.

            The main resource in that part of the country is the Great Lakes/St Lawrence.

            Niagara is fully developed and has been for a long time. Dams elsewhere would interfere with the St. Lawrence Seaway.

            For central Canada the best option would be more nuclear plants, but that has been impeded by irrational fears fed by ignorance, media alarmism, and lies from organizations like Greenpeace.

            Currently about 60% of Ontario’s electric power comes from nuclear plants in and around the GTA (2016 data). Hopefully we’ll get some generation III plants in the next decade or so, but counting on rational decisions from politicians is a fraught exercise.

        4. PlutoniumKun

          This isn’t the case with the Bhutanese schemes – they have the advantage of a gigantic levels drop, but they use relatively large impoundments far upstream to ensure a pretty much constant annual production. They can pretty much produce energy on demand all year round – at least until those upland glaciers melt.

          It all depends on geography of course.

      1. philnc

        There probably is a fair amount of that in the back of people’s minds. S. California and the SW US have a severe problem when it comes to water. But it seems that most of the opposition stems from the overwhelming historical tendency of hydro projects in the US to do irreparable damage to the environment. That’s not really an engineering problem, as has been pointed out: there are ways to do these things right. It’s also personnel problem, from the top on down. The level of corruption and incompetence among the agencies responsible will make change difficult, even with leadership that wants to do it right. In those terms, hydro is a lot like nuclear.

        1. vlade

          Sure, but the problem is that if you have a problem like that, even building other sorts of energy sources and what comes with them (mines and extraction industry in general) will be the same. Of course, the problem there is that with hydro the impact is very localised, unlike say with coal where the mine might be easily thousands of miles away, so the locals might care less if some mountaintop somewhere else is blown away.

    2. Peter

      If you cannot understand the resistance to hydro – have a look at the effects of the Peace River “Damns”, from the losses of arable and forestry land, the problems of silting behind the dam which limits the lifetime of dams, the problem with interfering down flow by regulating streams that do not get now the necessary flow for cleaning up developing islands midstream or silting of side streams, oxbows etc. or are negatively affecting fish habitats.
      They also impact the stability of the slopes in the reservoir, affect tree growth negatively, and also release vast amounts of carbon dioxide during the construction phase due to the heavy machinery used and the clearing of the land of trees and brush, usually incinerating those while at the same time by the reserve occupying formerly forestry areas now with rather biologically dead bodies of water.
      They also are either demanding the use of vast amounts of fill or concrete, further leading to denude vast areas of land for the production of fill thus eliminating further areas for C02 capture or the enormous release of CO2 for the production of concrete.

      1. vlade

        And building a massive new coal plant (for example) is exactly better how? With say something like Adani coal mine to go with it? And shipping the coal from X to Y etc. etc?

        I’m not saying hydro plants are good – please read the comment. I’m saying that all we have is a choice. And, as far as choices go, hydro tends to beat a lot of other options.

        Please provide a good energy source option if you disagree, one that would have no environmental impact. That is, unless you advocate eradication of the human race, which of course would solve the environmental impact problem.

        Saying “hydro’s bad” is not a solution, it’s an invitation to look for unicorns.

        1. Odysseus

          “No impact” is of course an impossible bar.

          If you’re willing to accept low efficiency, there are some very low impact options that haven’t been explored. I suspect that solar-powered Stirling engines could be created at a low cost that would be energy positive, but you’d obviously need a lot of them. It’s not that hard to create a significant temperature differential. And being mechanical, friction would eventually cause upkeep costs.

          1. vlade

            But that’s my point. There’s no solution that has no impact, because having any living organism has impact (or more precisely, and energy consuming process).

            “a lot of them” – well, that’s also environmental impact, as if you have an energy source that has low space-density, you need the space, and even so called “empty spaces” have impact on environment, once they are not empty… Not to mention transmission stuff etc..

            And again, that’s my point. We have a number of choices, but none of them are costless. The antipathy to large scale hydro pretends that there are costless choices, because (in my experience) it refuses to compare the costs, as admitting them would also force the admission that we are picking a lesser evil (in their minds), even though in real life an unambiguously good choice is extremely rare (so ‘picking a lesser evil’ is just what humans do all the life).

            1. Bernalkid

              From what I could tell living most of my life in California there is already a huge amount of hydro developed, both generating power and serving water supply needs. Citizens have seen and used the benefits, as well as learning the costs over many years. Furthermore I am not aware that there are that many good sites anymore that would not be fantastically destructive. The fisheries have collapsed, agribusiness rules, water moves from North to south. What not to like, eh?

            2. whiteylockmandoubled

              The carbon footprint of large-scale hydro has historically been significantly underestimated. Obviously, a significant amount of CO2 is released during construction — these are literally the largest structures that humans build. Grand Coulee dam was the biggest thing ever built on Earth when it was constructed. Then the destruction of plant and animal life resulting from flooding also releases some CO2.

              By themselves, though, amortized over the life of a dam, these CO2 releases make large scale hydro relatively clean, although they vary widely by project.

              What really makes large scale dams dangerous is that following flooding so much plant life decomposes anaerobically, and dams thus release large amounts of methane as seasonal water levels fluctuate. Although much shorter lived, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

              These effects vary widely by project and location. They are much more intense in warmer regions than colder regions, for example. But at the extreme end, some hydro projects actually generate more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity than comparable oil-fired plants.

              an old piece:

              newer piece:

            3. Briny

              The basic point, and most proposals gloss over this no matter the source, is the “total life-cycle costs” behind any source of energy. The overall life-cycle costs, especially factoring in externalities, is lowest for Hydro, as it stands now. Today, in the real (engineering) world.

              Subject to change.

        2. Peter

          I answered your question: I never really understood the antipathy to large-scale hydro..

          And you come up with the strawthingy ” Coal plant. What about NG plants? Cleaner and less capital intensive, as NG can be directly combusted in generators without steam production and bunkering tons of coal on site.
          And then there is also Nuclear Energy.
          And there is also reducing population, also you seem think eradication is the only solution.
          And there is the reducing energy use by dropping personal transport, more energy efficient housing, higher density housing instead endless suburbs, less use of air transport, less holidaying, development of more efficient heating and cooling systems. But the elephant is still population growth and the demand placed on energy and food production.

        3. drumlin woodchuckles

          Conservation and curtailment. There is your new “source” of electricity. The electricity not used is the electricity not needed, hence the Moar Dammz not needed.

          And there are not very many places left to build Moar Dammz. The Moar Dammz have already been built for the most part.

          The Great Bend of the Brahmaputra River might be an interesting place for dams. A whole staircase of dams going down the river. And because of its Great Bend, water-flow-ways could be drilled through the rock ( or otherwise installed) between the damloads of water on each “leg” of the bend to the damloads on the “next lower leg” of the bend. The vertical distances would offer huge heads to generate huge amounts of electricity.

    3. Mark

      Agreed. Hydro power is fantastic not only for its ability to supply power on demand with rapid response but in its ability to STORE power. Pumped hydro is far cheaper than batteries.

      Sure damns change the local environment significantly. However the environmental benefits normally vastly outweigh the costs.

      Impacting the environment around us is unavoidable. Seeking the lowest impact solutions are what we should be doing. Burning fossil fuels is among the worst. This is carbon that has been locked away for millions of years! Every bit we put into the air isn’t returning back ground any time soon. (Well there is the carbon ‘cycle’ but the point of that is it is a cycle.)

      1. Black Beauty

        Hydro has other problems besides it’s impact on ecosystems, such as storage and as an energy source (and, I believe, as cooling for nuclear, but that’s a separate issue, see:

        Mark Z. Jacobson fracas:
        “But among other criticisms, the rebuttal released Monday argues that Jacobson and his coauthors dramatically miscalculated the amount of hydroelectric power available and seriously underestimated the cost of installing and integrating large-scale underground thermal energy storage systems.”


        1. Grumpy Engineer

          @Black Beauty: Gah. Mark Jacobson’s reports are an active menace when it comes to understanding what it will truly take to decarbonize our economy. They are wildly optimistic about how much we can expand our hydro generation assets and how cheaply we can storage energy. And by “wildly optimistic”, I mean “completely divorced from reality”.

          In case you weren’t aware, Jacobson and colleagues wrote a second report that described a world-wide 100% WWS scheme. It earned several comparable rebuttals. Here’s my favorite:

          Key quote is the following:

          It was at this point that my mind began to boggle. I’ve been complaining about how renewable energy studies tend to underestimate the massive amounts of storage that will be needed to support high levels of intermittent renewables penetration, yet J2018’s global storage requirements for cases A and B amount to more than 15,000 terawatt-hours, an astronomical number.

    4. David in Santa Cruz

      Hydro dams have wiped-out fisheries in the Northwest. Fish need to travel far upstream in order to spawn. It has also become evident that the silt blocked by dams makes it nearly impossible to fish to find their spawning streams. The Resident Orca Whale population, who have a fish-based diet, has just about been driven to extinction.

      I haven’t read all the comments yet, so forgive me if I’m repeating something, but the video makes the assumption that the power grid/delivery system will remain centralized and static. Since the peak demand is residential, why not decentralize battery storage? Each home or building could be charging batteries on roof-top photovoltaic during the day when residents are at work, and then use the stored energy during the evening peak for lights, cooking, TV, cooling, etc. Of course, that would eliminate a source of rents to the energy sector, so it’s probably a non-starter…

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I have read that there are still Direct Current appliances for use in camping trailers and other such Country Recreation purposes.

        Such appliances would work just as well inside a suburban house if they were provided Direct Current. What if suburbanites were to install their rooftop panels and use the battery-stored power to run Direct Current appliances supplied from the batteries by a totally separate network of DC wires installed into the house without disturbing in any way the AC wiring already in the house?

        That way, “rents to the grid-lords” would not be an issue. Every house its own DC storage and DC wiring for some DC appliances could be done without having to overcome any political Grid Lord opposition at all.

    5. Nigel Goddard

      With regard to your last two sentences, you might be interested in some of the archived posts at, which is only posted to now at seasonal transitions. Sapience is not that widespread in homo sapiens, but we might be getting to an evolutionary bottleneck that drives it forward.

  2. Ignacio

    Evaluating the cost of energy storage and its multiple alternatives is not that easy. You can do a supply-side evaluation comparing with utility energy supply costs or a demand side analysis depending on where the storage facility (Lithium batttery, hot water deposit…) is installed. There is another important role that energy storage supplies that has to do with grid management. Energy storage is also an arbiter of supply and demand and helps to keep the grid in good working conditions. Depending on where the storage is installed you can have batteries with multiple uses providing higher value. You can stack different functions in an energy storage falility and increase the value it provides.

    Even for a single application and a single storage method the band of energy storage cost is very wide according to Lazard’s study. According to this study, lithium ion batteries will soon become economical for grid frequency regulation. Anyway as energy storage is becoming a central part on new grid designs the cost dynamics are set to change.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      ++!! I imagine it’s pretty complicated to try and see into the future to plan the best approach in the present. Go nuclear for just how much long term stability, mix that with how much hydro and geothermal, and count on just what amount of improvement in battery storage and what part will alternative power storage strategies play? Yikes!!!!

    2. PlutoniumKun

      On the point of energy storage, the most recent generation of wind farm applications in Ireland are including vanadium flow and lithium batteries as integrated parts of the development, without any regulatory requirement or subsidy.

      I’m assuming this is a result of lowering cost and capacity issues and operators are looking at the potential profits involved in supplying more dispatchable energy. It really is remarkable at how quickly the economics of renewables has changed in such a short time.

      1. Joe Well

        >>It really is remarkable at how quickly the economics of renewables has changed in such a short time.

        Is there any likelihood they will improve so much in the next ten years that much of this discussion becomes moot?

        And would more government investment speed that up?

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Is there any likelihood they will improve so much in the next ten years that much of this discussion becomes moot?

          Alas, not even remotely. The key reason grid operators are adding storage to their renewable energy assets is to deal with the “duck curve” phenomenon, where the power produced (by solar in particular) collapses so fast that they’re having trouble ramping all of their backup assets (i.e., gas turbines fueled with fracked natural gas) quickly enough to meet demand. Adding 2 to 4 hours of storage can be really helpful here, both in terms of stretching out the collapse and reducing the number of gas turbines that have to be purchased (and operated for only a couple of hours per day or so, which ruins their economics). Reducing the number of gas turbines required to meet post-collapse electricity demand is a key factor in justifying what would otherwise be prohibitive battery costs.

          But to get to 100% renewables, 2 to 4 hours of storage won’t cut it. Just to get through a single windless winter night can require 16+ hours. To get through a sustained period of unfavorable weather (like when a low-wind snowstorm dumps 15 inches of snow on top of your solar panels), you can easily need several days of storage. Maybe even a full week. Please don’t confuse the relatively tiny amounts of storage that “duck curve” smoothing requires with the stupendously larger amounts that a 100% renewable energy grid would require.

          And no, I doubt that more government investment would speed things up significantly. If somebody can invent a new battery that is super cheap, has high power density, has really low leakage losses, and can withstand an infinite number of charge cycles, they’ll make billions. It’s the “holy grail” of the industry, and I can assure you that ALL of the battery researchers and manufacturers out there are already chasing it.

          1. Math is Your Friend

            Good points.

            A place where the nights are 16 hours long with an average low of -20 for months does not seem to generally figure in to the optimistic calculations people are fond of quoting.

            I also suspect that the estimates are based on replacing existing electric loads and not replacing electric loads plus heating plus transportation.

          2. Wisdom Seeker

            To throw a fresh log on this fire (pun intended):

            Biomass, while not necessarily everyone’s favorite, is technically renewable (and was treated as such in days gone by) and can be used quite well for storage.

            California has seen so much biomass build up that it suffers ragingly destructive forest fires, even… If the wood’s going to burn eventually anyway, why not get some productive use out of it first?

            1. Anders K

              Biomass tends to lack energy density, leading to either increased transportation costs or to only allow for local consumption. My parents (getting on in age) still get three quarters of their heating energy from biomass (wood, cut down by my father from people who want to get rid of their trees, then dried for a year or two on the premises).

              This is a great solution for them, who live in a rural area near loads of trees where access is easy. It does require time and work spent in acquiring and preparing it and storage space and so on.

              If we decide to go that route we will need to spread out, which will require either more energy spent on transportation or less trade, and in either case will mean reduced access to healthcare and other benefits of concentrated human populations.

    3. oliverks

      Energy storage is actually taking off at the corporate level in California. PG&E has new peak power billing plans that are costing companies a fortune. Installing a local BMS (Battery Management System) can often pay back in as little as 2 months! You read that right, not 2 years, 2 months. It’s crazy, but PG&E is actually driving the adoption of local storage.

      1. Math is Your Friend

        California is not the greatest example for practical energy solutions given the mild climate, abundant sun, paucity of snow and ice, and, if Hollywood can be trusted, tiny amounts of rain and cloud… all of which skew the figures for both supply and consumption.

        1. oliverks

          I agree California is somewhat unique, but the video was specifically about California. I am seeing a “grass roots” BMS movement. It is fair to say that it is being driven more by people being pissed off at PG&E than a rationally thought out strategy, but it may start solving the problems mentioned in the video.

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    Great video and it didn’t seem to me that the conclusions were buried under extensive data and graphs though perhaps reading Yve’s introduction tipped me off somewhat so that the main points seemed clearer in the video than might otherwise have been the case.

    I also liked the plug for Python and Brilliant. Since regardless we are going down the rabbit hole of software and big data with little if any concern for distinguishing between nefarious rent seeking vs. enlightened people serving intent in proposed projects and solutions, the more people with knowledge of the underpinnings the better.

  4. Steve H.

    Jevons. Groaf. ‘sit in their car for hours’

    *grumble* I don’t want to strawman a source that isn’t challenging usage, but it’s disingenuous to consider future needs as stable. Cali’s efficiency (electrical use per capita) may be nearly flatlined, but it’s population has increased long-term.

    Distribution is the issue, isn’t it? There may be enough energy in geothermal to supply the world, but it’s unevenly distributed in space. The need for storage is the uneven distribution of solar energy in time. The need for storage is to meet peak demand. A concentration of power in time. I’ll suggest a principle, that concentration of power most benefits those with the ability to use more power in the moment, at the cost of inefficiency. Power loss increases with flow rate (amperage).

    It’s easier to see with nuclear energy, where maximum power occurs with explosive destruction. But it scales to urban elitism, millions of cars in traffic jams that won’t show up in electrical demand until they’re all EV’s. And the notion that the traffic jams are a necessity is the broken assumption.

    Thank our ancestors for the electoral college, such that exceptional thinking does not wreck us all.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    Just a few points on the general principles here – I get very frustrated with arguments/discussions over electric power because so few people (and I include many experts, who tend to burrow themselves into their own particular specialities) really appreciate how interconnected decision making has to be when it comes to keeping a grid stable – its not just a matter of generating raw megawatts – its about when and where you can generate your power, what your demand profile is, what your timescale is for conversion and so on.

    Key variables that have to be thought about are:

    1. Your mix of power sources – very few energy sources are capable of fully and safely keeping any grid going, every one has its ‘issues’ in terms of supply and cost and security. All well functioning grids have a mix of power sources.
    2. Your ‘mix’ can’t be random – some types are complementary, some are not. For example, big thermal plants (nuclear/coal) are excellent at providing base power (the predictable minimum required over daily, weekly and annual cycles), but are terrible at providing for peaks, even highly predictable peaks. The huge growth in gas powered generators is as much down to how well gas generators complement thermal and renewable as much as any cost consideration. Decision making is often driven by the existing network pattern, which can lead to what seem illogical conclusions (for example, building windfarms in areas that aren’t particularly windy, but are close to major power lines).
    3. Your existing grid is not ‘neutral’. Specific types of energy require particular layouts – as an obvious example, if you cluster nuclear power plants you will have a very different looking grid (think massive pylons) to one using renewables (much more decentralised, lots more smaller overhead lines).
    4. Any decarbonising plan much take account of the ‘mix’, in addition to grid design changes. The latter is not necessarily a high cost as depending on your timescale the alterations can be done in line with normal replacement schedules.
    5. There are additional intangibles involved in calculating the ‘cost’ of power sources – a key one is resilience – in the event of major weather events, droughts, floods, earthquakes, geopolitical events, etc.
    6. No major power source is 100% reliable at providing dispatchable energy – all require some degree of over provision, storage, or import capacity (i.e. long distance connections with other grids).
    7. When you ‘replace’ power plants, that doesn’t mean the power plants disappear. Its quite possible – and desirable – that plants, especially gas CCGT ones are kept mothballed, or producing at a low level, for occasional emergency use. This provides some buffer in the event of unexpected problems with a rapid decarbonisation programme. Of course, some types of generator are easier to mothball than others.
    8. No two grids are alike. An optimum strategy for the east coast of the US might look very different from the west coast.
    9. If the priority is to reduce CO2 emissions (as it should be) its important to take account of the ease and speed of ramping up production. This obviously favours wind and solar as you can scale up output with great speed – mega projects, whether nukes or dams take many years of construction before they generate a single watt.
    10. As regards solar – its often forgotten that there are two types of solar – photoelectric (which everyone tends to think about) and concentrated solar power. The latter has fallen behind due to the huge drop in price of PE cells, but it has one huge advantage in an area like California – it can store its energy and release it on demand (at least over a relatively short term cycle).

    The reality is that any decarbonisation strategy will involve unpopular decisions. No power source is entirely ‘clean’ and no power source is perfect in terms of supply. Almost all the major potential sources of energy can only work if we make assumptions about the development of technology – whether you are talking about carbon stripping fossil fuel tanks, energy storage for renewables or the next generation of nuclear plants.

    1. Math is Your Friend

      “Specific types of energy require particular layouts – as an obvious example, if you cluster nuclear power plants you will have a very different looking grid (think massive pylons) to one using renewables (much more decentralised, lots more smaller overhead lines).”

      A very good point.

      Many analyses do not seem to look at the problem of the geographic dispersion of the solar option compared to the concentrated nature of many of the major energy destinations (industrial facilities, cities),

      There is a major advantage in having your nuclear plant 40 km from a population of several million along with their associated industries, both in terms of physical investment in transmission facilities and the reduction of transmission losses.

  6. Joe Costello

    The idea that we’re just going to plug in new energy generation and keep our fossil fuel lifestyles is a non-starter. To think storage is going be massively installed is wrong way to think, for millennia human society has worked largely with the sun, we’re going to be doing that again, and we’re going to need as much solar electricity as we can get.

    But, it’s clear this will not be done by choice and you can bet one thing, when the environmental calamities begin to mount to a point no one can deny, there will be a massive popular clamoring toward nukes as the plug and pray option for “sustaining” an enormously resource intensive lifestyle consumed by still very small part of the global population.

    We can all live great lives using a lot less resources, just not the post-war wasteland economy several generations of Americans have to come expect as their right, a right it should be noted held by the vast united majority of Americans much more strongly than any other. How to do this remains largely still not contemplated and acted upon almost not at all — events are in the saddle.

    1. Joe Costello

      It should also be noted, the whole question of “storage” is run through the century old utility model of a centralized grid. A great deal of installed solar to this point was done using “utility scale” installations of solar, where solar’s biggest value over utility systems is small and distributed, but we don’t know how to electricity that way. Industrial systems/technology created the environmental mess we and the future face, just as any old ancien regime, it seems pretty likely at this point collapse will be the only way change will be effected.

    2. Peter

      Unfortunately it seems that technology again is thougt and promoted to be the savior that permits us to keep our excessive consumerist lifestyles without having to sacrifice much of what the West is used to, from personal transport to wasting energy in your daily lives to expecting goods and foods to be available everywhere at all times.
      Not going to happen when the climate consequences of 417 ppm CO2 – and increasing – will bite..

    3. Ray Phenicie

      Replying to Joe Costello on fossil fuel Lifestyles. Many a left facing progressive would brand you as a ‘austerity neoliberal’ for deigning to suggest our gluttonous lifestyle should be curtailed as we move towards net-zero emissions. For a fairly complete discussion of the issues that surround the unrealistic expectations of the Green New Deal, this article, from a post Yves made back in January, is excellent. To see why current plans to move to net zero emission set us up for failure, be sure to follow all of the links to see why a major curtailing of consumption habits is needed.
      1. All of the re-building projects will require drawing on current energy production which is fossil fuel based. This means a huge surge (albeit temporary) in GHG emissions.
      2. We have to partner with the other major producers of GHG emissions (about twenty nations produce 90%) to coordinate efforts.
      3. We can’t leave the 150 or so less developed nations behind; many currently rely exclusively on coal fired electric plants that are recent builds. They don’t now and won’t have anytime soon the capital to rebuild. Also many households in those nations consume as little as 1/10th the energy that Americans do on average. Are the leading nations going to leave those countries behind?

      1. jrs

        how do you really know what many a left facing progressive might say or do? Because of some personal lifestyle choice, well I try not to be particularly wasteful, but don’t wonder why GND supporters would tune out then and there. They would be more right to than not! At least GND gets that it’s not about individual lifestyle. I mean you are projecting what progressives would do in the face of actual coordinated action when we don’t have that coordinated action to begin with.

        I think better plans look at coordinating efforts globally so this seems mainly an argument I’ve seen made on the right that “reducing carbon pollution in the U.S. isn’t enough” yea but any better GND plan would try to look at how to leverage U.S. power such as it is and cooperation globally. Someone reflexively made this comment at the L.A. times website on an article on Jay Inslee, when he actually has a whole write up on “global-climate” policy. I mean if they critiqued the policy that would be fair game, most don’t have the expertise to and neither do I. We should be having climate debates every single week, ha local climate debates across the U.S. every single week!

        I understand the hopeless argument, sure, so one doesn’t buy green bananas because climate change and they might not live to see them ripen, right, problem is that doesn’t actually go anywhere.

        1. Ray Phenicie

          For the nonce, setting aside the polling issue about what progressives believe, did you read any of the sources I put out there?
          -It’s about 10 hours of reading. Please do read all of it before responding again in an entirely summary fashion. It’s not fair to my interests as a commentator to be so dismissive on the issue of polling numbers without looking at the whole case. I put the article link so I wouldn’t have to retread over ground that’s already been thoroughly and scientifically reviewed by the authors whose expertise is greater than mine.
          My point is more that the general public has been led down a garden path by GND enthusiasts. Show one GND supporter who cares about the 150 nations I mentioned

          well I try not to be particularly wasteful

          I was not trying to get to the individual and deeply personal stuff people do so I apologize if that’s how my response came off. I was thinking more of a broad range of statistics I’ve seen that shows Western consumerism is not sustainable.
          Thanks for your input. I’m looking up polling numbers.
          P.S If you don’t want to read the article and all of the links therein (there’s about 10) we’ll part ways. You didn’t read them the first time so . . .

          1. Ray Phenicie

            This is an example of the “Tra La, Tra La, It’s May, the Greenest month of the year,” “Tra La, we have a Green New Deal, Tra La”
            It received over a thousand likes on Twitter and the writer, who regularly expounds her lark about how wonderful the Green New Deal is, does a healthy business of expounding her tra las.

    4. Math is Your Friend

      “We can all live great lives using a lot less resources”

      No, we can’t.

      Save 10%? 15%? in energy use to get the same effect in the US? Almost certainly. But that will require investment in new high technology, which will bring its own resource requirements.

      Instead of digging coal for fuel, we’ll be digging coal for polymer synthesis and moving ore en masse to extract rare earth elements for things like high efficiency electric motors.

      And remember that agricultural land is suffering from over-use and older agricultural methods, resulting in dropping productivity while the population grows apace. We’ll have to up our game in food production. Luckily we have some good possibilities for that, including engineered food plants and animals, hydroponic systems with extremely high growth rates, and other improvements.

      Given that 85% of the world has yet to reach the same levels of personal benefit, if the developed nations cut 20% off their resource use, and the remaining 85% increases theirs by 200%, we’ll end up using more, not less, overall. And that probably won’t be enough to raise their standard of living to comparable levels, so you can look for that component to keep growing.

      Remember the scale of this. The US represents about 3% of the planetary population. In the long run, it’s the other 97% who will have the dominant influence, and the great bulk of them are now playing catch-up, and will be for decades. That’s why China is building a thousand coal fired plants (some in other countries) to go with scores, if not hundreds of nuclear plants in their plan, and India is not that far behind.

      Just those two alone represent 25% of the world’s population, and other high population areas have a lot of catching up to do as well.

      In the long run – decades, even centuries, the only answer is to move to new ways of doing things. Things like large scale asteroid mining, fusion, orbital solar power, arcologies, orbital habitats, space elevators, large scale hydroponics… all of these and more are likely to be pieces of the solution. It won’t all happen at once, but it will happen, and eventually there will be a sufficient supply of raw materials and energy that all reasonable requirements can be met for everyone.

      Luckily, once a base capability is in place, most of these things can scale gradually as capabilities improve and requirements increase.

      I do find it interesting that a well designed arcology not only might operate in a carbon neutral mode, but with a bit of tweaking, might become a carbon sink. Consider the conversion of atmospheric CO2 into structural materials for more advanced arcologies courtesy of the hydroponic cultivation of engineered algae powered by the fission/fusion reactors in the sub-basement.

      That won’t happen in the next decade, but if we were serious about it, two or three decades would probably see major progress.

    5. drumlin woodchuckles

      This is an opportunity for Conservation Lifestylers to step up and live Lower Energy lifestyles in Open View of all their friends and neighbors.

      The whole civilization is carefully designed and engineered to prevent and destroy conservation and efficiency wherever possible. But some things and choices are still beyond the reach of the malignant Waste Based Civilization Establishment, and there are some Conservation Lifestyling methods that the Lords of Waste cannot stop Conservation Lifestylers from adopting except at gunpoint.

    1. Ernie C

      This is a particularly doable concept, and is no less suitable for storage with advanced renewables such as photovoltaic (photoelectric) power as centuries old hydro power. Simple impoundment of water in ponds and lakes could provide both water and stored energy at minimal cost, and to some degree, a sort of recyclable use of land when the storage system becomes obsolete or reaches the end of its working life (which could be a quite considerable length of time).

    2. John k

      You could use excess electricity to split water, then burn the hydrogen in a typ gas fired generator to generate power at night. And the oxygen might have some value.

      1. John Wright

        This process would lose a lot of electrical energy in the round trip.

        A heat engine can use thermal energy to produce mechanical energy to generate electricity at an efficiency of about 30% as I recall..

        Using electricity to split water into H + O2 for subsequent burning in a heat engine should result in a loss of 70% of the formerly ordered electric energy.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          So what if it would? Just generate enough MORE electricity so that the waste can be accounted for and leave behind enough hydrogen to burn for the electricity we want plus a waste factor from burning the hydrogen and handling the electricity on its way to us.

        2. djrichard

          Here’s a video by the same guy on the efficiencies of hydrogen vs electric batteries for vehicles.

          It’s been awhile since I’ve watched this and I don’t believe it gets into the one big advantage of hydrogen that would be relevant here: compressed hydrogen wouldn’t degrade over time compared to batteries.

          Having that infrastructure in place could be beneficial for hydrogen cars too. For instance, would it make sense for people to have compressed hydrogen on their property to tide them through the winter months?

  7. Ptb

    Good video, covers a lot of what I think has been missing in previous discussions.

    Points I would highlight:
    (1) more wind, to complement solar.
    (2) huge overcapacity on both peak and average basis, and curtailment most of the time, are natural parts of low carbon energy grid.
    (3) the use of batteries is to level out the day/night cycle for solar. After that, you get more for your energy/carbon/$ investment by adding other generation, like wind, geothermal. [There is a nice paper on this via EROI analysis, one of the Murphy et al or Hall et al series….. winds and solar are surprisingly different in the breakeven curve vs batteries]
    (4) the simplest minimum carbon solution may be to do wind+fossil fuels in the 3 low-solar months, and try to go full zero-carbon in the summer, accepting the necessity for huge overcapacity of solar/wind.
    (5) this is California. They have all the renewable options. Parts of the US are not.

    PS- biofuels are not carbon free. In California, because water scarcity, quite dumb.

    1. vlade

      Overcapacity on solar/wind has a problem that those sources are not space-dense. You may think that say plastering hundreds of square miles of desert with say solar would be the answer, but actually at that size it will also start changing local climate (even small wind/solar farms do, but not as badly and in ways some people present it, but if you start literally covering 100s of square miles, you’ll run into problems).

      That is, unless you distribute the overcapacity in small amounts locally. But the problem is that that can be very inefficient in a lot of areas.

  8. dutch

    How many square miles of California will have to be covered by PE panels in order the supply that state’s current energy use?

    1. Monty

      I don’t know the answer, but if you drive down the I-8 from AZ to San Diego (or I-10 to LA). There is no shortage of space to place these panels or wind turbines. The scale the solar and wind projects already there in the desert are amazing, and they could be increased by orders of magnitude if there was a will to do so.

    2. TimH

      All to CA will have to be covered by PE panels to work at night.

      Per PlutoniumKun, it’s not that simple.

    3. John k

      50 miles square (2500 square miles) could power the country. 15 miles square could power the state.
      Fly from southern Ca to the east… you pass over desert for quite a while, much of it pretty flat.

      1. dutch

        WOOOPS! I misread your estimate. I took it to be 50 sq. mi. not a square 50, miles on a side. That’s still low I think. It’s around 20 miles square just for California, assuming consumption of 260 TWh per year. Since California’s consumption is about 7% of the whole country, then the total area needed for the USA would be about 5,000 square miles. Twice your number. But within half of an order of magnitude, so not too far off.

    4. dutch

      Before advocating for solar power shouldn’t a person know how much land area will have to be sacrificed? I would have expected at least one person in this commentariate to have that number at their finger tips. Any way, my back of the envelope calculation gives around 180 sq. mi. I expect this to be accurate to within a half order of magnitude or so. Hopefully someone can provide a better estimate.

      1. Stray Scientist

        I agree that land-use considerations are under appreciated. But on the other hand, the surface area being used for solar in many cases has already been sacrificed for parking lots, roofs and so on.

        Desert land is cheap but there’s not really a need to sacrifice the fragile and underappreciated ecology of the deserts. There are better places to capture solar by getting dual-use from already-impacted land area.

        For instance, solar structures alongside urban roadways could provide shade against morning/evening glare and sound baffling.

        And thinking of California, right now the water in the aqueducts and reservoirs is free to just evaporate in the sun. A 50 or 100-foot wide solar shade structure along the aqueduct, or solar-tower “islands” in the reservoirs, could reduce evaporation losses as well as provide power.

        1. Anon

          Finding local space for PV panels is not difficult. As you mentioned, parking lots are prime opportunity. In San Diego an architect proposed using the space above the large central flood control channel (the LA River is another opportunity) with a secondary function of reducing algae growth in standing channel water.

          Distributed (local) PV power generation reduces transmission line losses and enhances redundancy (against power outage).

  9. Monty

    Energy Vault has a storage solution using cranes and large concrete blocks. Excess power is used by the cranes to raise the heavy blocks. The blocks can be lowered to turn turbines and release energy when required. Ingenious!

    1. GF

      There is a project under development in NW AZ that is similar except is uses water. Unfortunately it will not use abundant solar resources to pump the water to a higher elevation “lake”. After the water is in the upper lake, if electricity is needed, the water then can be “drained” through turbines to the lower elevation lake thus supplying power on demand. The turbine are also the pumps doing double duty when required.

  10. Jon Cloke

    California would indeed be ill-advised to depend on solar, which makes it fortunate that it doesn’t have to.

    Being on the Pacific Fire Rim gives it virtually unlimited geothermal potential, for instance: “An estimated 1500-2000 megawatts of geothermal capacity is untapped in the Imperial Valley alone.” (

    Combined with wind, offshore in particular, tidal, hybrids, California could probably export power to a large part of the entire South-western US.

    Don’t put all your eggs in the solar basket, California – resilience is all about diversification!

  11. pat b

    Surplus energy can be used for desalinating water.

    Cheap power to make clean water is vital to California.

    1. SF jester

      Or give it cheap (or for free) to carbon intensive industries that can stockpile their products (cement, metal smelting, etc.).

    2. vlade

      water desalination is a horrendous industry. This about it this way. You take the sea water, and on the other side, clean drinkable water comes out. But what happens to the other stuff that is in the sea water? Most often, it gets piped back to the sea, where it happily kills everything around, as it’s a massively concentrated solutions of salts and stuff (well, regs actually require it to be diluted, but you know.. ). People are looking into it, but it’s really a bit of waterbed thing – you squeeze it on one end, pops up on the other.

  12. John Beech

    Using surplus electricity, e.g. excess generated when there’s insufficient storage, for the purpose of cracking hydrogen for use as fuel, was the subject of a recent article I perused. The numbers added up for this engineer.

  13. Roger N Blomquist

    Fossil fuels, geothermal, and uranium are already stored energy. Wind, solar are not (expensive SCP excepted). Big hydro stores energy, but it’s overall supply is intermittent due to droughts. If we are to have electricity when we want it (i.e., no blackouts), we need the supplies to be nearly all from the stored energy sources. If we want to abandon fossil (and there are very good reasons for doing so), that leaves nuclear.

    250 years ago, we used 100% “renewables”. This was mostly biomass (feeding animals, including humans) and converting the energy to muscle power. A bit of wind power was used for pumping water and water-borne transport, but not much. We dropped biomass and wind because fossil was dispatchable and far more energy-dense, not because we ran out of biomass. We now should drop fossil in favor of nuclear for environmental reasons. The energy content of one gram of uranium is roughly a million times that of fossil fuels, which is why the environmental impact of nuclear is inherently minor compared to fossil.

  14. Synoia

    Dams are temporaru structures, becuse the weight of water behind the dams defotms the earth.

    The best solution is to use less electrictiy. Increase the price to forve conservation, and turn thins off.

    Move all data centers out of state.

    Water desal is horribly exprnsive.

    For CA the best plan would be to eliminate lawns, and all sprinkler systems for all but some food plants,

  15. Code Name D

    Whenever I hear about “the problem” with renewables, I have to ask how much of it is really technical issues, and how much of it is political. Here is Kansas, there are ongoing battles with independent wind farms. In order to produce energy, you have to get into the que as set by the Kansas Corporation Commission, the primary regulating body for the Kansas grid. Existing coal and oil generators are generally placed at the head of the que, allowing the wind farms to only pick up the slack. As a result, Kansas wind farms rarely get to run at 100%. This makes it harder for them to recoup costs and slows the deployment of more turbines.

    However, more turbines are being built and deployed. I fully suspect that in a few years, Kansas will also have a “renewable energy problem” as well when it’s discovered we have lots of excess wind capacity and no means of storing the extra energy.

    And Kansas is by no means the worse example. Texas used a “spot market” where power is sold moment by moment on an exchange. About a decade ago, Texas faced a brown out. Fingers pointed at a wind farm that failed to produce power during the peak demand period. But on investigation (the demand and production logs are available on the internet), I found out that the wind farm in question had actually made a very low bit – placing them at the end of the que, based on weather forecasts that suggested poor winds that day. It was an aging oil plant that had bid much higher on the que that had and unexpected shut down. The Texas Windfarm example became a conservative talking in Topeka when it came to addressing Kansas’s wind farm issue that I just mentioned.

    Examples such as these exaggerate the “renewable problem”, exposing them as less technical issues, and more neo-liberal management issues which insist on leaving grid management up to the whims of the market. And last time I checked, California still has an electrical spot market that is even more irrational than Texas.

    Renewables basically have to claw their way into the cue, which dose have a disruptive effect over the grid as a whole because of the market’s inability to intelligently manage the system. We have to wait until storage infrastructure starts to claw their way into the system for their share of the market profits. And clearly that isn’t happening.

    I also notice that there is little discussion about better management of the demand side of the equation. True to neo-liberal form, the “consumption” is largely ignored, save as a source revenue stream for the rest of the system. And I am not just walking about insulating the homes of the poor or providing them with energy efficient appliances. I am talking about insuring that manufacturing facilities schedule their high energy demand operations for peak production hours, and reducing activities or shutting down completely during trough hours. You schedule your demand to consider with your peak production.

    There is probably also a lot of room to discipline the general consumer to modulate and schedule their energy demands accordingly. Probably one of the few legitimate roles for the “Internet of things” is to begin coordinating AC units, refrigerators, clothes dryers, and other 220V units into the overall grid operation. To begin balancing domestic needs with industrial and commercial needs.

    1. heresy101

      Your comment is right on. The CAISO runs the transmission grid according to the price suppliers bid into the market. It has nothing to do with resource and electrical efficiency, only what the “market” desires! If you want to make sure your resource (say geothermal) gets taken, you need to self schedule the resource to be a price taker. What you ultimately pay for the energy may be more, or less, than the actual generation cost of the energy or your contract cost. Neoliberalism at work.

      Shifting usage occurs in a lot of municipal utilities that have customers with electric water heating by having the utility control them like a battery to shift usage from excess energy times to high usage. Also, California is moving to all time of use (TOU) electric rates so that it is very costly ($0.50/kWh) during peak times at 1900 in the evening. Before solar, the peak usage was 1300-1400 with all the air conditioning load. With solar, the air conditioning has been met and the peak occurs in the evening.

    2. Math is Your Friend

      “I am talking about insuring that manufacturing facilities schedule their high energy demand operations for peak production hours, and reducing activities or shutting down completely during trough hours. You schedule your demand to consider with your peak production”

      I begin to think you haven’t had a lot of exposure to large scale industrial processes. For most of them this would be totally infeasible, for the rest, totally impossible. I grew up in an industrial town, and I or people in my family, or my friends, worked in the various plants.

      You can’t turn a blast furnace off half way through the cycle. You can’t run an electric furnace on unpredictable power – I mean one of the arc furnaces where the arcs come from three or four electrodes each a metre in diameter. You must roll the steel when it is hot from the furnace, not when the sun happens to be shining without clouds… and that steel keeps coming out of the furnaces 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

      You can’t run a parts factory putting out half a billion parts a year for ‘just in time’ customers if you and your suppliers are going to shut down randomly.

      You can’t keep a skilled work force if you keep shorting their hours by sending them home or telling them not to come in for their shift.

      You can’t compete with other suppliers who do not have these enormous deficits handicapping them. Those with predictable, reliable, inexpensive power will get all the contracts.

      And if you are building a complex product, you can’t buy parts from unreliable suppliers. If you try, the competition will bury you while you are distracted trying to avoid insolvency.

      Many key industries run continuously. It’s the office workers and retail clerks who get to avoid 24 hour shift patterns.

      There are a lot of ‘hand waved’ ‘solutions’ out there, but a lot of them don’t mesh well with the real world requirements.

  16. Cal2

    Yves, Thank you posting this very educational video. People have to read between the lines.
    This guy sounds like a shill for the “Build more nuclear plants” industry.
    “That means that solar capacity will be overbuilt, due to the need to provide sufficient supply in the winter and to allow for long stretches of cloudy days.” Assumes they don’t work on cloudy days?
    As of 2015
    “Solar Cells That Work on Cloudy Days Just Hit a Record-Breaking 22.1% Efficiency”

    “California imports Nuclear from Nevada at afternoon peak” 4′ 15″
    There are no nuclear power plants in Nevada.

    “4.86 billion dollar cost of enough battery storage 6’25″… ”

    This leaves us vulnerable if we don’t have natural gas or nuclear to pick up the slack...

    “Our energy generation falls off a cliff in December and January…”(When there’s no air conditioning needed?)

    Setting air conditioning controls to turn units on a few hours earlier would chill homes to an uncomfortable cold level when there’s maximum solar generation in summer. By the time people “get home from work,” as he says, the homes would be comfortable. How many people still commute this way BTW, versus working or taking care of children or being at home and using solar for A/C earlier in the day?

    $18.26 billion to increase panel and batteries to do the job. And, what is the direct cost of building a nuke? “13.8 Billion to build Diablo Canyon.”

    “Mar 23, 1969 The CPUC votes to grant PG&E a CPCN for unit 2 with an estimated construction cost of $183 Million (MILLION)

    Today? Probably 50 Billion for two units, after all new costs and inflation. How about the taxpayer subsidies, since no nuke can get liability insurance? See “Price Anderson Act”.

    “Closing nuclear stationS is a questionable move….” Dude, get a clue, there is only one left, sitting astride multiple earthquake faults upwind of San Luis Obispo, a sitting duck for Tsunamis, like Fukushima.

    His worst case bottom line scenario for renewables is still radically cheaper than building even one nuke.

    1. UserFriendly

      You sound just like the Clinton campaign with your “everyone who disagrees with me must be getting paid to do so.” Go look at the rest of his videos.

      “That means that solar capacity will be overbuilt, due to the need to provide sufficient supply in the winter and to allow for long stretches of cloudy days.” Assumes they don’t work on cloudy days?

      No, assumes less power output on cloudy days.

      “California imports Nuclear from Nevada at afternoon peak” 4′ 15″
      There are no nuclear power plants in Nevada.

      Actual quote ” California imports electricity primarily wind and hydro from the pacific northwest and nuclear, coal and nat gas from Nevada.” I’m sure he meant NV and AZ, especially since he used a reagonial grouping in the first half of the sentence. It probably started off as southwest and got edited because it was clunky.

      “Our energy generation falls off a cliff in December and January…”(When there’s no air conditioning needed?)

      Setting air conditioning controls to turn units on a few hours earlier would chill homes to an uncomfortable cold level when there’s maximum solar generation in summer. By the time people “get home from work,” as he says, the homes would be comfortable. How many people still commute this way BTW, versus working or taking care of children or being at home and using solar for A/C earlier in the day?

      Maybe it isn’t AC’s going on, but something causes peak power consumption around that time. While making this specific video about Cali he obviously wanted to make the broader topic relevant for other places. Good luck getting any combo of wind, PV, hydro, and batteries to not only power, but electrically heat Minnesota in the winter.

    2. UserFriendly

      “Closing nuclear stationS is a questionable move….” Dude, get a clue, there is only one left, sitting astride multiple earthquake faults upwind of San Luis Obispo, a sitting duck for Tsunamis, like Fukushima.

      The elevation of the Fukushima site is approximately 20 feet above sea level, while Diablo Canyon sits on a bluff 85 feet above sea level.

      As usual with nuclear power, the irrational fear of it is way more deadly than it ever has been. A few thousand died evacuating while over the course of the next century there will be less than 10 people who die from radiation at fukushima.

  17. Jeremy Grimm

    How well do solar cell farms or roof mounted solar systems manage in rough weather — lightning, high winds, or very large hail? I suppose this might not be a problem for California where it’s always sunny but weather in general has shown a tendency to grow more harsh and destructive. How well can the present grid hold up in rough weather? When building for the future it might be a good idea to build for the weather predicted for the future.

  18. Louis Fyne

    Peak demand: 4p to 7p local time, the overlap between people at work and at home.
    Peak demand in winter regions also include 6am to 8am, the overlap up people waking up at home and businesses starting up.

    Peak solar output: solar noon, which generally runs 12p to 1pm local time depending on where your location is in relation to its time zone.

    solar energy absolutely has a place, but it’s structurally mismatched with human living patterns and isn’t a universal solution.

    solar + wind + fission + natural gas all have a role to play and all 4 are needed–barring Star Trek-like tech breakthroughs.
    just saying.

    1. Cal2

      Diablo Canyon, run and maintained by that paragon of public safety, PG&E, only responsible for 800 or so deaths, Between wildfires and San Bruno gas explosions, is scheduled to shut down in a couple of years.

      Where do you suggest “fission”? How will it be paid for. Who will insure it? How about the additional global warming carbon that building and mining, refining, transporting, guarding, and fueling a nuclear plant emits? How about the waste disposal and storage?

      What are terrorists more likely to attack, solar panels or a nuclear power plant, or more likely, its cooling power supply? Don’t forget the never mentioned and easy to install solar hot water that offsets electricity use in those who don’t use gas? Also, how stopping the importation of Central America’s surplus population to California, therefore reducing demand for electricity and more building?

      Just sayin’.

      1. Math is Your Friend

        “What are terrorists more likely to attack, solar panels or a nuclear power plant”

        Smart terrorists, who want to live to do more than one (probably futile) attack, will go after power panels.

        Given the nasty chemicals that can leach out of defunct solar panels, some kind of spray that hastens their demise might be useful… not only do you kill the power generation, you create a major contamination issue. And the problem wouldn’t show up until weeks or months later, when the project has already moved to another area.

        I don’t remember seeing anyone doing an estimate for the cost of cleaning up old solar panels… probably time that was addressed.

        1. Cal2

          Nowadays every parking meter with a panel is therefore, a tempting terrorist target. :-)

      2. UserFriendly

        And just think, if they managed to cause a full on meltdown on the scale of Chernobyl (which would mean physically destroying the now ubiquitous containment domes) they might be able to kill a few hundred people over the next hundred years. I can think of a million more effective ways to kill more people.

    1. Cal2

      Ten to fifteen feet approximately to get to soil that is many degrees cooler. This coolness can be used to chill buildings so that a/c is not needed. Also, temperature differential can be used as heat in winter.
      Rooftop solar provides electricity to run the pumps.

      Most of this was figured out decades ago. Only real change, solar panel efficiency and computerized control advances.

      DECENTRALIZATION is the name of the game. All the above discussions, and the original video assume centralized, and thus politically and economically controllable power generation that extracts profit out of people’s needs and suffers line losses over distances.

      If everyone has solar panels and a solar water heater, they are energy independent during the day. At night, there own car batteries can power a 12 volt lighting system. Search for Drumlin’s ‘Direct Current’ post up above.

      This is for Canada, but has nice graphics and explanation.

      1. George Phillies

        Soalr water heat is fine for three or a bit less seasons, if it does not rain fro too long, and makes a contribution in winter if there is not too much snow. I speak from experience Ditto solar panels on the roof.

        1. Cal2

          George, What is snow? We live in California.

          Of course, 30 feet of the white stuff around your house in the high Sierras makes a great insulator.

  19. George Phillies

    There is a formally simple, though perhaps expensive, solution, to the storage issue. For each hydro facility, build a second dam, probably easier modestly downstream rather than upstream of the first. Convert the original dam to pumped storage. The sun shines when it wills, and the spare power from the solar is used to pump the water back upstream from the lower pool to the upper pool. The water is then re-used for power generation. Unlike power stored in batteries, water behind dams tends to stay there. If enough solar were available, all the water behind the upper dam could be used for power generation on a daily rather than a yearly basis (probably not the ideal solution).

    As those of us of a certain age who are native Buffalonians recall, this was done many years ago with Niagara Falls, which after tourists leave at night is used to recharge a large artificial reservoir that then gives extra power during the daytime.

  20. Susan the other`

    So California must change its lifestyle. And also, please dear jesus, deconstruct the Diablo Canyon station. I don’t know if you’ve noticed (California), but Diablo is on a fault line and is right on the ocean. So think of it as an opportunity of a lifetime. Stop commuting. Take full advantage of passive solar. Rig up a few solar appliances and cook or wash while the sun shines. Read at night by a small solar battery. Grow a garden.

    1. Anon

      Stop picking on California! I simply do not understand how people in other states assume an energy profligate lifestyle is congenital to Californians. It’s not. Yes, car culture dominates (See: Beach Boys; Brian Wislon turns 77 today), but that is because where we work is not where we live–most of us would work at home, if possible.

      California is a leading the way in energy efficiency: your 30 mpg Honda is a result of CARB regulations, CA homes have to meet the strictest energy efficiency requirements in the US, and, of course, CA uses more renewable energy than any other state. Stop the sunshine envy and follow us away from Trump and the Repubs and into a better future. (But, please, don’t move here–make your local community better.)

      1. jrs

        Certainly states like CA keep having to sue the federal government to try to maintain what environmental regulation we have. This is the horror of the Trump administration, blue states are suing, fighting for our lives here. Instead of the battle we need, we have a retrograde battle just to maintain the status quo, because with Trump we have wanton destruction for destruction’s sake.

        As for the suggestions, reading at night is fine but most of them take boatloads of money, that one can ill afford from a plain old financial perspective, especially living somewhere so expensive.

      2. Susan the other`

        I’m not picking on California. I happen to think that the massive effort to manufacture a new clean infrastructure is a day late and a dollar short. Not just in California. This clip just uses California as a clear example of what we are up against. We need to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the planet. That would help enormously. I sympathize with your commuting misery. I want you to be able to stop doing it. I sympathize with California – it’s a wonderful place. But you have to agree that Diablo Canyon is a very precarious power plant. No?

  21. Spacious

    One assumption that is seldom addressed in these discussions is changes in demand. Many home appliances are currently designed to waste energy for the “convenience” of the consumer. Such as the “always on” television set that boasts a very brief warm-up period. Is this sort of foolishness even necessary any more? Improving the energy consumption profile of existing technologies looks to me like a wide-open field for improvement. And it will give us a much clearer idea of how much energy we are actually going to need in the future.

  22. ewmayer

    I’ve seen pumped hydro facilities in the European alps which, instead of damming a wild river, are ‘new’ storage resulting from damming a favorable-geography catchment of glacial runoff which previously was drained by way of modest-sized streams. The key is to let the resulting catchment fill slowly over the course of several years and then *reuse* the water on a daily basis. i.e. once the reservoir is full one only needs to spill an amount similar to the pre-dam stream runoff.

    Some back-of-napkin numbers: say you have a pair of reservoirs at 1000m relative elevation, between which you will be cycling a more-or-less fixed supply of water. The potential energy difference for 1 kg of water between the 2 elevations = 1 kg * 9.8 m/s^2 * 1000m = 9800 Nm = 9800 Watt-seconds, since 1 Newton-meter = 1 Watt-second. That’s nearly 3 W-hours. Thus a cubic meter of water, 1000kg, stores nearly 3 kW-hours, and a cubic km, equivalent to a cube of water 1 km per side, stores 3 Terawatt-hours, roughly 1 thousand times the 2.27 GWh amount mentioned in the correction to the video above. That seems like a pretty substantial storage capacity.

    To put the 1 km^3 water volume into perspective, the Oroville Dam in California, which was in the news a few winter ago due to its crumbling spillway, is 235m high with a reservoir capacity of 4.4 km^3. So it is ~1/4th as high as my example dam and 4x the reservoir capacity, this has roughly the same pumped-storage capacity of 3 TWh.

  23. Math is Your Friend

    Something has occurred to me, belatedly.

    We know that batteries fail, sometimes spectacularly. The bigger the battery, the more spectacular the result.

    Not only do the battery materials burn, but there is also the stored energy. With lithium batteries in particular, this can take a while, and a lot of water, to extinguish… some vehicles have taken days for efforts to cool the battery to finally settle the matter (place car in tank of water for 24 hours, pull out, check battery temperature, if necessary return to tank for another day).

    What didn’t immediately register with me was the amount of energy in grid reserve batteries.

    The 2.27 GWh battery mentioned in the OP, if fully charged would contain the equivalent of 1.8 kilotons of TNT – about the same as a low range tactical nuclear bomb. (the B61 variable yield warhead’s lowest setting was .3 KT).

    A failure that results in an internal or external (or both) short circuit could release all of that energy over a relatively short time, resulting in a very hot fire or perhaps an explosion, and depending on what got vaporized, creating some nasty chemicals and particulates.

    You might want to be rather careful where you put such things, or even look for a different way to store energy.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Heh. There’s already been one “large” battery fire out there. The battery fire in Hawaii:

      The fire department arrived within 20 minutes, but because of the electrical hazard, they could not spray water or foam into the fire itself. They had to hang around until the fire went completely out on its own, 36 hours later. This was a mere 0.030 GWh battery, and the fire spread several tons of lead and other pollutants across the landscape.

      Battery fires are indeed an underappreciated hazard. Because they contain their own store of energy, they don’t need oxygen from outside to continue producing heat. And small pockets of stored energy can cause the fire to re-ignite long after the fire is supposedly out. [This happened with a Telsa car that caught fire. It was hauled off to the impound lot after the crash, where it reignited five days later:]

      1. Math is Your Friend


        I’d seen articles on electric car fires, including multiple re-ignitions, and the delayed ignition you cited, but was having trouble relocating the URLs.

        I also realized, as I thought about it, that oxygen dependent fires are rate limited by oxygen supply, but stored energy events (batteries, capacitors) are not.

        I suspect that the bigger the battery, the more likely it becomes that an unintended thermal event will cause damage resulting in rapid release of the remaining energy.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Yes. Stored energy events can be scary. I’ve personally witnessed the aftermath of a couple of short-circuit events involving large-scale capacitor banks. Both were spectacularly destructive. The magnetic forces generated by the fault currents tore the insulation system apart, and in one of the events there was an arc that caused an explosive expansion of air and vaporized/burning metal. It was severe enough to generate an actual shock front, much like you see when detonating a true explosive like TNT.

          And battery systems are worse. They can generate fault currents in the 300kA+ range just like those capacitors did, but the capacitors held relatively little energy and were totally discharged in less than a millisecond. The batteries would keep going for several full seconds before thermally-driven internal breakdowns began to occur. Orders of magnitude more energy.

          The risks here can be mitigated with lots of branch circuit protection (i.e., lots of high-speed fuses) and thermal segregation (i.e., put each 100kWh segment of battery into its own refractory-lined silo, so that if it catches fire it can be allowed to burn out completely without harming its neighbors), but all of this adds cost and increases the footprint requirements.

          And the thought of putting a large battery system in my house gives me the willies. If these become widely prevalent, fire departments will be severely hampered when fighting fires, just like they were in Hawaii.

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