Meeting Long-Term Climate Goals Will Take Everything We Have

Los Angeles by night
California's long term energy challenge is enormous


For the last couple of years, those of us working on regional grid coordination have heard people wishfully claim that renewable energy generated at the local or community levels would be the main way that California meets its visionary long-term climate goals.

If only it were that easy. Instead, as a new report shows, not only will it be challenging, we’re going to need every tool in the toolbox—and more.


Not that locally generated—referred to as distributed—renewable power isn’t important; it most certainly is, but as the recent California Energy Commission report reaffirms, the challenge to decarbonize California’s economy is truly daunting, and a complex blend of multi-faceted solutions is needed to accomplish the task.


California has so far made impressive progress on its greenhouse gas (GhG) reduction targets, slashing emissions at a pace serval years ahead of schedule. But as the study shows, it will just keep getting harder from here on out. There is much to do, in many areas, simultaneously. There is also not a lot of room for waste or error.


From adopting strategies to integrate renewable power into our transmission grid, through improved energy efficiency and a pollution free transportation sector to even adopting a suite of so-called “stretch” technologies (that are not commercially viable right now, but which could become economically feasible in the coming decades), California will have to do it all. There are many complicating uncertainties and no guarantees that every strategy will work out as planned. We cannot afford to leave important tools on the table, or waste money. The price tag for meeting our targets can go from significant to breathtaking if we mess this up.


The report, “Deep Decarbonization in a High Renewables Future” walks us through an economy-wide look at what measures are needed by sector to decarbonize the state’s economy, and importantly, how to achieve success at a manageable cost. 


The good news is we can do it, and we can do it efficiently. But we cannot lie to ourselves about the enormity of what is needed or pretend that California can succeed alone. As we wait for new technologies to emerge and the price of existing technologies like energy storage to decline, we will need to make use of the most cost-effective tools currently available to us to stay on track: including energy efficiency, demand response, gearing up renewable power and regional grid coordination to name a few.


From the conclusions:


High priority strategies for deployment include energy efficiency in buildings and industry, renewable electricity and renewable integration solutions, and smart growth leading to near-term reductions in light-duty vehicle miles traveled. By 2050, 85% to 95% zero-carbon electricity is expected to be required; however, 100% zero-carbon electricity is likely to be cost prohibitive compared to alternative GHG mitigation strategies.

High priority strategies that require additional market transformation include deployment of zero-emission light duty vehicles, advanced energy efficiency in buildings, including building electrification, replacement of fluorinated gases with less potent global warming potential gases, and capture of methane emissions.

Finally, at least one reach technology is likely to be required to achieve the 2050 mitigation goal. Examples of reach technologies that provide solutions in hard-to-electrify sectors include advanced, sustainable biofuels, zero-emission heavy-duty long-haul trucks, industrial electrification and hydrogen production using electrolysis. (emphasis added)


In other words, we will need some breakthroughs we may not even know about yet.


For the electricity sector, the theme of regional coordination emerges as a high priority, especially to keep costs manageable:


For 2030 and 2050, key renewable integration solutions necessary to contain the costs of high levels of renewable energy on the grid include: 1) increased reliance on flexible loads and demand-shifting, particularly in electric vehicle charging, but also in buildings and industry; 2) regional markets and regional procurement of renewable energy; 3) market-based renewable curtailment, combined with using supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, to allow renewable curtailment as a low-cost strategy to manage variable renewables on the grid, and 4) cost-effective grid storage including hydroelectric, battery, and chemical storage.


Using our existing grid infrastructure more efficiently and effectively saves time, and money and more rapidly reduces GhG emissions. We can build fewer new transmission lines and reserve power plants and add new renewable power—local and large scale—faster. As the report illustrates, time is of the essence.


On climate change, California is leading the U.S. and, in many ways, the world. We cannot be glib about our solution set and must be intensely focused on maintaining progress and momentum over the coming months and years. Enlisting the aid of our regional neighbors in meeting all our climate goals makes us better able to meet the climate challenge in an economically sustainable and environmentally responsible way.