By Hudson Sangree
SAN FRANCISCO — This year’s ACORE Renewable Energy Grid Forum took place in a high-rise hotel within blocks of the headquarters of tech revolutionaries Twitter, Uber and Airbnb, among many others. So it was fitting that the forum’s speakers, including Google’s head of global energy policy, grappled with what keynote speaker and FERC Commissioner Richard Glick called the “energy revolution.”
Coming advances in electricity generation and distribution — such as mass storage, distributed renewables and computer algorithms that can monitor a vastly complicated grid — will make older modes seem like the horse and buggy at the dawn of the automobile era, Glick said. Back then, those invested in buggies would try to dissuade people from buying automobiles, he said.
“Every time a car would drive by someone would yell, ‘Get a horse,’” Glick told the audience at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco, near Union Square. “We’re kind of in that situation now” with fossil fuels and renewables, he said.
Another keynote speaker, CAISO CEO Steve Berberich, said the traditional model of centralized generation using fossil fuels is already “fraying around the edges” as the price of solar and wind power continues to plummet. The cost of storage is also falling, he said, and every state except Idaho has a renewable energy goal.
“Even conservative states such as Utah are pursuing [renewable energy],” Berberich noted.
The third keynote speaker, Laura Nelson, energy adviser to the Utah governor’s office, told the audience that the price of renewables has dropped 50% in the last five years, and Utah has increased its reliance from 1% to 8%, with big investments in utility-scale solar and geothermal power.
In a panel titled “Evolving Models for Electricity Markets,” Ralph Cavanagh, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the biggest impediment to renewable integration is the fragmented Western grid.
Efforts to expand CAISO to an RTO for Western states had sputtered, he said, because other states were not willing to accept a board appointed by the California governor and confirmed by the State Senate, and California politicians weren’t willing to share control of the RTO. (See Can Calif. Go All Green Without a Western RTO?)
CAISO’s governance structure would need to change for California and neighboring states to participate in an organized wholesale market, he said. Gov. Jerry Brown supported the failed efforts at regionalization, partly as a means of achieving the clean energy goals of SB 100, which he signed in September. (See Calif. Gov. Signs Clean Energy Act Before Climate Summit.)
Mars Hanna, Google’s head of global energy policy and markets, said his company, like California, is trying to reach a goal of relying on 100% carbon-free energy. To get there, he said, “We need to be able to blend Wyoming wind with Nevada solar.”
Addressing the recent election, Rose McKinney-James, managing partner of Nevada-based Energy Works, said state voters had rejected Question 3, a ballot proposal to allow customers to choose their energy providers, largely because they were concerned about rates going up. (See related story, High Failure Rate for Western Ballot Measures.) Nevada’s electricity rates are 45% less than California’s, she said.
Another big factor, she said, was that NV Energy, the state’s monopoly electric provider, had announced plans before the election to develop 1,300 MW of solar generation. But that would only happen if the company remained a monopoly, she said.
Cavanagh agreed. “[NV] Energy reinvented itself” as green and clean, he said. “It gave us something to vote for.” Now “you’re going to have a revitalized [NV] Energy as a player in the West.”
Pat Reiten, senior vice president of government relations for Berkshire Hathaway Energy, also was on the panel. NV Energy is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, billionaire Warren Buffett’s company.
Reiten said the falling cost of solar had persuaded the company to invest in it. NV Energy once uselessly bid solar into California’s market at $100/MWh, far more than fossil fuels, he said, but the price now is $20 or $30/MWh and competitive with other energy sources. “That’s rather remarkable,” Reiten said.
On the stage at the Grand Hyatt near Union Square, McKinney-James turned to Reiten and said she and many others expect NV Energy to keep its commitments.
“We do have expectations, and there will be feet held to the fire,” she said, eliciting laughs from the audience.
After lunch, conference attendees were invited to submit questions via an app to panelists Angelina Galiteva, a member of CAISO’s Board of Governors and founder and chairwoman of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, and Dan Reicher, executive director of Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.
The first question was, “What is the biggest issue facing the grid as renewables proliferate?”
Intermittency, both speakers said, but they argued it isn’t as big a problem as many critics have contended.
Galiteva said she grew up in Tanzania, where local solar proved far more reliable than the spotty power supplied by a central generating station. “That’s where I fell in love with renewables,” she said.
Many criticize renewables such as wind and solar as being intermittent and unreliable, but Galiteva said she believes “renewables are more reliable than centralized power,” especially as renewable power sources proliferate.
The fact that renewable energy sources are distributed provides an inherent safety backup compared with centralized power, Galiteva said. “Look at the San Onofre power plant,” she said. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, on the Southern California coast, shut down suddenly in 2012 after problems arose, and the grid lost the plant’s 2,350 MW.
Galiteva also pointed to the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, a major resource for the Los Angeles area, which shut down after a massive leak was discovered in October 2015. Constraints on natural gas supply have resulted ever since. (See CAISO Seeks to Extend Aliso Canyon Rules.)
Reicher said intermittency was generally considered the main problem with renewables, but not all renewables are intermittent, he said. Hydropower, geothermal and biomass are regular, dependable sources, he said.
Storage, including pumped hydro, will make solar and wind more readily available during peak demand times, he said.
Floating wind farms off the coast of California, if ever approved by federal authorities, would be a reliable source of wind power. California’s coast has some of the most regular winds in the nation, and those winds pick up just as the state’s solar energy tapers off for the day, Reicher said.
“When you go to the beach in California,” he said, “the sun goes down and the wind comes up.”