California needs to essentially decarbonize its electricity grid by 2050 in order to cut enough emissions to meet its climate goals. But today, California makes most of its own electricity by burning natural gas, a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned and pollutes the air we breathe. So how do we get from here to no carbon emitted from our electricity grid?
Part of it's pretty simple: We can't keep building more natural gas plants like yesteryear if we're going to create the electric grid of the future. Traditional gas plants, which California has loads of, aren't flexible enough to work well with all the clean energy, like wind turbines and solar panels, that we need. That is, these old gas plants can't ramp down their generation low enough during the middle of the day sometimes, which ends up overloading the system, and unfortunately, solar energy gets pushed off the system.
Sources of California In-State Electricity Generation for 2014
To prevent us from building even more inflexible gas plants--for which we don't have room in our long-term "carbon budget"--California energy leaders are proposing a creative solution: Stop building "traditional" gas plants--those without pre-installed "clutches," devices that allow a gas plant to disengage its natural gas turbine, while still providing valuable services to the electric grid. That is, with a clutch, the generator part of the natural gas plant is still able to continue running (just on a trickle charge from the grid), and can provide many of the same benefits to the grid as before.
This technology, pre-installed clutches, allows natural gas plants to better support clean energy on the electric grid--in a way that emits virtually no local pollution. On the other hand, installing clutches after-the-fact costs at least an order of magnitude more than pre-installing them, adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars in otherwise-avoidable costs.
Just last week, the president of the California Independent System Operator (the organization that runs the electric grid)--Steve Berberich--demonstrated real climate leadership by calling on the California Public Utilities Commission (the agency that orders the state's major utilities to build or buy new power plants to ensure their customers' service needs are met) to require clutches (as the default) if and when the agency authorizes any new flexible gas plants.
And earlier this year, Commissioner David Hochschild of the California Energy Commission (the agency that issues permits for natural gas plants) helpfully illustrated why it's critical to outfit any new gas plants with clutches: the plants will outlive our 2050 deadline to meet our climate goals, at time when we can't afford to be burning natural gas in clunky traditional gas plants. Or in other words: "You don't throw the football to where the receiver is, you throw the ball to where the receiver is going." And California's end zone is a clean energy future.
These are just the seeds of a wise clean energy policy for California. However, the CEC recently approved permits for California's newest gas plant, the Carlsbad Energy Center, without requiring the installation of a clutch, against my testimony, and it will take several more steps by the agencies to cement firm policy on this issue.
But the vision is clear: to get from here to 2050, California must stop building the clunky gas plants of yesteryear.