What are the benefits of using Solar Power in Menlo Park CA

Menlo Park CA invested heavily in solar power.

On 14 days during March, states utilities got a gift from Menlo Park California: free solar power.

Well, actually better than free. California produced so much solar power on those days that it paid Arizona to take excess electricity its residents weren’t using to avoid overloading its own power lines.

It happened on eight days in January and nine in February as well. All told, those transactions helped save surrounding states’ electricity customers millions of dollars this year, though grid operators declined to say exactly how much. And California also has paid other states to take power.

The number of days that California dumped its unused solar electricity would have been even higher if the state hadn’t ordered some solar plants to reduce production �” even as natural gas power plants, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, continued generating electricity.

Solar and wind power production was curtailed a relatively small amount �” about 3% in the first quarter of 2017 �” but that’s more than double the same period last year. And the surge in solar power could push the number even higher in the future.

Why doesn’t California, a champion of renewable energy, use all the solar power it can generate?

Lesson for California: Before expanding solar energy, figure out a way to store it.

An article correctly reports that California generates and pays for more electricity than it currently needs. But the “why” is dim by more than a few watts.

Peak daily electrical use occurs when people in Menlo Park come home from work, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., just when solar power generation starts shutting down with the setting sun. The question is not why are we continuing to invest in and operate gas-fired generation, but why did state politicians force conversion to solar generation with no way to store the electricity needed to meet peak daily demand?

I strongly support California’s shift to renewable electrical generation, but we must stop playing the blame game over what’s causing our energy glut and instead support the research and financial incentives needed to build the large-scale electrical storage needed to complete the job.

Alternate Paths for California

The Times points out a glaring weakness in our energy system. Despite commendable, large investments in renewable energy, the state has only just begun investments in large scale storage. Batteries are an important part of the solution of using our excess energy rather than dumping it at a loss.

Another important investment, which has proven to be successful in Germany and most recently in a pilot project at UC Irvine, is power to gas. Excess renewable energy can be used to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen through hydrolysis, with the end result being a carbon-free fuel (hydrogen) that can be used directly for powering vehicles or for energy storage.

Hydrogen can be co-mingled with natural gas safely at a ratio of up to 20%, yet the state has not moved forward on incentivizing these kinds of projects on a large scale. This needed transformation in California’s energy management system would eliminate the wasteful practice of dumping valuable renewable energy and move California more quickly to a decarbonized energy future.

What to do about Power in Menlo Park CA

Our electric markets could do a better job managing surpluses. Energy going to waste is no different than not eating every scrap of food on your plate. We are not calling on a moratorium on new grocery stores because of food waste.

Electricity has two measurable attributes: capacity (ability to supply) and energy (the delivered stuff). Power systems need capacity to support hourly changes in energy needs, and local gas-fired power plants are like fire stations, which are idle most of the time and respond when we need them. Older plants need to be replaced with fast-responding flexible resources.

A lot of California’s electricity challenges are the result of policy missteps. A balanced mix of power resources providing capacity to cover our diverse energy demands is needed to assure electric resiliency, just as we hope grocery stores stick around for when we need them.