Western states learned this week that sources of renewable power have their limits when it comes to extreme weather events.
California in particular has moved away from reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power, and the past seven days has shown what that means when heat waves hit. Cloudy days and lack of wind combined with a heat wave reduced the ability of solar and wind farms to provide the amount of electricity Californians expect.
The Bloomberg news service reported, “Since Friday, millions of Californians have seen their lights abruptly cut with little notice — part of a last-ditch effort by the state’s grid operator to save the system from heat-induced power failures.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, California’s gas-fired power plants have run at capacity for the past several days.
Californians got some relief late Monday and Tuesday when windstorms allowed wind farms to produce again. The storms also brought lightning, which ignited wildfires. The weather is expected to be hot and dry again for the remainder of the week, which will put new strains on the power grid in Western states.
Bloomberg reported, “One thing that has made California’s grid so vulnerable to soaring demand is the state’s rapid shift away from natural gas. About 9 gigawatts of gas generation, enough to power 6.8 million homes, have been retired over the past five years as the state turns increasingly to renewables, according to BloombergNEF. That leaves fewer options when the sun sets and solar production wanes.”
Going green too fast carries a price. This part of the nation has lagged behind others in adopting renewable sources. The weather is not the best for solar and wind, and most of the good spots for hydroelectric power plants have been developed.
We are going green, but it’s on a smaller, slower scale. One example came last week when Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia said it expects to have a 6-acre solar panel project — the largest in West Virginia — in operation at its Putnam County plant by March 2021. Toyota officials said the solar power facility is part of a plan to reduce the plant’s reliance on outside energy, and it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions at the plant by 1,822 metric tons annually.
At the utility level, Appalachian Power is in the process of adding up to 50 megawatts of West Virginia-based solar power.
In the past decade or so, new gas-fired and hydroelectric power plants have been added in the region as coal-fired and nuclear plants have been retired.
As Clint Eastwood said in “Magnum Force,” “A man’s got to know his limitations.” We just don’t have the technology yet to go as green as we would like. Demand can drive innovation, but at present there are limits now to how much electricity renewables can generate and how much batteries can store for peak use.
As events unfolding along the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountains are showing, renewables are good, but fossil fuels and nuclear power will have to provide much of the nation’s energy needs for the foreseeable future.