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Can California Really Go Carbon-Free by 2045?

Posted September 21, 2018

In August, California set an ambitious new goal to combat climate change.

The bill, which passed in the State Assembly with a vote of 44 to 33, will require that the state fill all its electricity needs through carbon-free sources by 2045. With this bill, California joins the fight with Hawaii, where legislators passed a similar bill in 2015.

California. Image credit: Natália Ivanková via Pexels

California. Image credit: Natália Ivanková via Pexels, CC0 Public Domain

This goal seems fairly ambitious for under 27 years. However, with commitment and innovation, it’s possible for the country’s most populous state to go carbon-free in the timeline allotted by the bill.

California is already well on its way to reaching its energy goals. In 2017, 56 percent of the energy produced in the state came from so-called “carbon-free” sources. About 8.7 percent of that energy was generated by the soon-to-close Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which there are no plans to replace.

Even so, California is already producing almost half of its power through carbon-free sources — not including nuclear — so 2045 is certainly a reasonable deadline.

The Work to Be Done

Even though California is already using a lot of renewable energy, more work must be done before the state can go completely carbon-free. Declining solar prices in recent years have made solar a more popular and feasible option, but energy storage remains a big problem for energy providers.

The problem with renewable energy sources like wind and solar is that they’re dependent on factors largely outside of human control. When the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, energy levels dip down, forcing providers to rely on other sources of energy, like fossil fuels, that can be burned at any time.

For California to meet the requirements of this new bill, it will not only need to increase renewable energy production but also find new ways to store energy for use during times of inconsistent supply and high demand. Luckily, there are already a few options available for renewable energy storage.

Lithium-ion batteries are an option that’s already readily available to energy providers. In recent years, prices for these batteries have sharply dropped, leading to their widespread use by utility providers and electric car companies. These batteries allow providers to store generated electricity for later use. However, they are by no means the perfect solution to California’s energy storage problems.

Lithium-ion batteries degrade over time, which means that they must eventually be replaced. Furthermore, though prices have gotten better, they’re still too expensive to allow carbon-free energy providers to compete with on-demand sources of energy like fossil fuels.

Battery prices would need to fall an estimated 50 to 80 percent before lithium-ion batteries could become a competitive option for the grid.

Alternative Energy Storage and Complications

To meet its energy goals, California may have to turn to other methods of energy storage. One option, Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES), could be a potential long-term solution. Like solar power, wind power is inconsistent.

Turbines can generate power when the wind is blowing but cannot when the air is still. Over open water, the wind is more consistent than on land, but navy restrictions on water off the California coast will make offshore wind farming complicated.

While providers wait to see if offshore plants are possible, onshore wind farms may be able to use CAES to store massive amounts of energy. This process allows energy producers to store energy as compressed air to be used later like a battery.

CAES requires that a plant be located above appropriate geological structures since the compressed air is stored underground in excavated salt caverns or porous rock formations. However, candidate locations have already been identified as Washington and Oregon, so California may have land suitable for CAES as well.

If the appropriate land is available and California invests in CAES, the energy stored underground could provide significant power reserves because formations can store such high volumes of air.

However, even this type of energy storage will take considerable time and resources to implement. If California is serious about meeting its energy goals by 2045, work needs to start now. After setting such an ambitious goal, California’s government will need to actively facilitate improvements to its energy infrastructure, which includes energy storage.

It’s important to note that vague language in the bill could allow California to meet its needs carbon-free by purchasing clean electricity from other states.

And even if California were to produce only carbon-free electricity in-state, the bill still doesn’t tackle carbon emissions from transportation or individual energy generation.

It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but a carbon-free 2045 is still a long way away.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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