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Will electric vehicles short-circuit California’s clean-power future?

How well California has planned its push to convert its electricity grid to zero-emissions energy could be revealed in the next five years.

Within that time, the state plans to bid farewell to major sources of round-the-clock power, like nuclear and natural gas, and see thousands of electric vehicles plug in to charge and more cities adopting all-electric standards for new homes.

And that would come about as 6,000 megawatts (6 gigawatts) of in-state dispatchable electricity production capacity, or about 7% of all California sources, are set to be retired by 2026, according to the California Energy Commission. That includes such produce-on-demand sources such as natural gas plants that can increase or decrease production based on how much residents and businesses are using at any given time.

And in 2025, the state’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon on the Central Coast, is set to go off line permanently when its licenses expire under a legal settlement with environmental groups. It’s twin reactors, totaling 2,500 megawatts (2.5 gigawatts), produced 8.5% of California’s electricity last year but account for 43% of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s power supply for Central and Northern California.

Meanwhile, Sacramento legislators and regulators have been upping the ante. They bet that California can move to 60% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2045. That includes plans to move away from internal combustion engines. The goals are part of a statewide effort in the past two decades to reverse emissions of gases blamed for changing the climate and increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires.

“We’ve been planning for this since 2015 and in a concerted way with harder targets since 2020,” said Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, a community choice aggregation utility that serves upwards of 230,000 customers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. “There is some risk that not all these resources will get built on time.”

Such CCAs have roughly 60% of the energy customer accounts in Northern and Central California, while PG&E has 40% but handles power transmission for those areas.

Planning to meet the lofty goals, in June, the California Public Utilities Commission called on suppliers to the California Integrated System Operator-managed grid to bring on line at least 11,500 megawatts (11.5 gigawatts) of additional net qualifying capacity from zero-emissions sources paired and the battery capacity to store it over the next five years: 2,000 megawatts in 2023, 6,000 in 2024, 1,500 in 2025 and 2,000 in 2026. That’s on top of 1,070 and 1,505 megawatts called for in a 2019 commission decision. Overall, the state hopes to increase generating capacity by just over 13,000 additional megawatts by 2026.

Net qualifying capacity is a metric that energy planners can use to compare how various sources will contribute to meeting demand over the day. A California Energy Commission mid-term reliability analysis released in September on the CPUC decisions found that 43 megawatts of nameplate solar capacity — the stated size of the system at installation — would be required to equal 1 megawatt of net qualifying capacity in 2022 and 53 megawatts would be necessary by 2026. Wind power would require 3.5 megawatts of rated capacity per 1 megawatt that could be used in planning.

The energy commission report found that about 10,000 nameplate megawatts of battery storage would be needed by 2026, allowing energy produced during peak solar and wind hours to be stored and discharged during peak demand times. Battery energy storage systems, or BESS, plugged into the Cal ISO grid grew from 550 megawatts at the end of last year to 1,500 megawatts last month and an estimated 3,000 megawatts by the end of this year, according to the energy agency.

“Reliability in the mid-term and beyond will be highly dependent on BESS deployment at a sustained rate and BESS operational performance,” the report said.

The report noted that 20% of the planned battery installations statewide could be delayed by as much as a year because of supply-chain issues. And ongoing testing of battery systems continues to ensure safety and reliability.

On Sept. 4 at Vistra’s Moss Landing Energy Storage Facility in Monterey County, said to be the world’s largest such battery installation, the 300-megawatt phase 1 went offline when the batteries overheated, scorching the power cells and melting wiring, according to the report. Phase 1 went online in December, and another 100 megawatts was added in phase 2 in August.

The energy agency’s report concludes after modeling various scenarios including outages, less solar and wind production than forecast, and less electricity available to import into the state that California can weather the transition to clean energy without the rolling blackouts of August 2020 or resorting to emergency measures as Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized this summer, including running ship engines at port or generators at hospitals to cover peak demand.

But what happens when all the electric vehicles start plugging in to charge?

The Regional Climate Protection Authority estimates that 30,000 will be rolling in Sonoma County by 2025 and 100,000 by 2030.

“Growth of electric cars will not be relying on utility batteries, because they will be charging starting at 9 p.m. and likely largely after 11 p.m., and electric vehicles will be charging in the middle of the day,” Syphers said.

From 3 to 9 p.m. are when the utility-scale batteries are forecast to be discharging energy stored when solar output was at its peak from noon to 2 p.m., he said. After 9 p.m., the load from vehicle charging would be handled by wind, geothermal, biomass (foliage from North Coast wildfire areas) and hydroelectric sources.

Sonoma Clean Power has contracted for electricity from 24 wind turbines in the Livermore area. The highest value for wind power is 6 to 7 p.m. and 10 to 11 p.m. Though wind power is 20% to 30% more expensive than solar as an energy source, wind production has more value because of when it is producing, Syphers said.

“No one puts a battery next to a wind farm, because you don’t want to store it; you want to use it,” he said.

But there commonly is a one- to two-week period in the winter when daylight is its least, and wind blowing by on-shore turbines typically is not as strong.

One of the Golden State’s key replacements for baseline (always producing) power generation from decommissioned nuclear and natural-gas power plants may be in the North Bay’s back yard.

As part of the plan to make up for the 2.5 gigawatts of potentially always running production from Diablo Canyon, the CPUC called for about 1.2 gigawatts of additional geothermal power by 2030 — including 1 gigawatt by 2026 — and 2.3 gigawatts by 2045.

Sonoma Clean Power has come up with a proposal to produce over 600 megawatts of that by expanding The Geysers geothermal production area, which currently straddles Sonoma and Lake counties. Sonoma Clean Power board, made up of public officials from city and county governments the utility serves, in September voted unanimously to create a geothermal opportunity zone that would cover a sizable portion of southeast Mendocino, northeast Sonoma and much of Lake counties.

This GeoZone would allow for federal tax credits to be secured for grid infrastructure and research of new technologies, according to a staff report.

There are currently 15 active plants in The Geysers field, generating around 700 megawatts of power, after energy needed to pump recycled wastewater from Lake and Sonoma counties is considered. The water is injected into a hot spot in the Clear Lake Volcanic Field, and steam created is used to push turbines to produce electricity.

One technology that Sonoma Clean Power wants to test is a closed-loop system, which would move water up and down in a loop, using a heat exchanger to generate steam to move the turbines. That would require less water to be continually added and emissions of geothermal gases.

Lake County Board of Supervisors is set to be the first to see the proposal to join the GeoZone, with a presentation tentatively coming next month and an action item in December. Sonoma County supervisors could be briefed on the proposal in January or February and will be asked to consider joining a month later. The utility has requested a presentation to Mendocino County supervisors, but a date has not been set yet, Syphers said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

Correction: Oct. 27, 2021: Sonoma Clean Power is not the only entity developing the Clear Lake Volcanic Field GeoZone proposal.

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