Do we really need more storage for our renewables?

PG&E has been running a series of “advertorials” on clean energy in the Sacramento Bee and other papers. Today’s on the need for electricity storage caught my eye. I’m not sure that we need new storage in California, at least not large-scale, in the immediate future.

The PG&E article describes an event in February 2014 when California generated more energy, much of it from solar and wind, than consumers were using. PG&E raises this as a concern that should be addressed so as not to lose that energy. But PG&E’s premise ignores one critical point–California is not isolated–it’s connected to many other states.

California is the largest electricity consumer in the Western Interconnection (with 10 other states and parts of Canada and Mexico). However the state only represents 30% of Western load. All of those states have weaker directives on renewables and greenhouse gas emissions, and most have much larger portions coming from high-emitting coal-fired plants.

When California overgenerates from renewables, it exports that power to those other states. This leads to a reduction in natural gas and coal use. When California needs power, it imports power as it has been doing for decades. In other words, the rest of the Western Interconnect is already acting like a storage device. The Southwest utilities have long exported excess coal-fired power overnight to California at low prices. Now California can turn the tables. PG&E may not be getting renewable portfolio standard (RPS) or greenhouse gas reduction credits for those exports, but they reduce GHG emissions in other states.

This situation is similar to the recent rise in petroleum production in the U.S. The country now exports refined products thanks to advances in extraction technologies. Congress is considering whether to allow the export of crude oil.  For both California and the U.S., the concept of exporting energy has been inconceivable up to now. Time to rethink our paradigms?

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