Putting the life back in science fiction

California’s (possibly) electric future

Wow, the last three weeks were not fun, but that’s not what this entry is about.  I’m back, and regular entries are resuming until the next little crisis kicks up.

Don’t worry, nobody died.  I just spent three weeks reading an environmental impact report (EIR), or rather, an EIR-shaped document, that was apparently designed to give carte blanche for CALFIRE to use hundreds of millions of dollars to do stuff in the name of fire protection, to give them a bureaucratic cloaking field so that they could avoid the consequences, and to do all this before they’d even figured out what they wanted to do.  It would be a great  program (I mean, don’t you want to believe the nice authoritarian white males who tells you that you must trust them to be safe, and not to think about all that stupid environmental stuff?)–except that there’s increasing science that says that most of what they want to do won’t actually make anyone safer.

Anyway, I was part of a group responding to it, and it took three weeks to read hundreds of pages of document (it was actually thousands of pages too short, considering they want to treat about one-quarter of the state), and writing our responses.  It’s one of the rare documents I’ve read where I had to stop reading after a few hours, because my stomach hurt so badly that I couldn’t stand to continue that day. A bunch of us felt that way.  Lovecraft’s quote from “The Dunwich Horror,”  “As a foulness shall ye know Them,” kept echoing in the fevered recesses of my cringing brain. That, incidentally, is why I’m not linking to the EIR.  If you want to feel our pain, I’ll put a link in the comments.

But that’s the last three weeks, and enough of that for the moment.  Onto something completely different: a deeply decarbonized California.

Before I go on a short spurt of summer optimism, let me assure you that I haven’t abandoned all pessimism. At this point I’m trying to get a sense for what will hit California in the coming decades.  Over the last few months I’ve written about the High Altithermal version, where California rewilds itself in a fairly chaotic fashion under extreme climate change.  That’s one future, but it’s a long term one.  Another potential future is that we somehow, against all human nature, manage to get to 100% renewable energy by 2050 or sooner.  That’s the future California I’m going to start exploring heree I think it’s a lot weirder than we realize.

With that way-too-long introduction, onto California’s electric future.

“The main barriers to getting to 100 percent clean energy are social and political, not technical or economic.”  That’s what Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson told some members of Congress last November, and I tend to think he’s right: getting off fossil fuels appears technically feasible, as I’ll show below.  At this point, our problem with fossil fuels appears to be social, cultural, and political. Still, what we’re talking about a 30 year-long transformation of current civilization that’s on the scale of, well, what we’ve done to California over the last 50 years or so.  The pundits consider that kind of change so radical as to be politically infeasible.  You be the judge.

Dr. Jacobson put out a website, http://thesolutionsproject.org/, that shows how all 50 states can individually get all their energy from wind, water, and solar power.  He believes that California could get all its power for transportation, electricity, heating and cooling, and industry, from the following combination:

  • Residential rooftop photovoltaic solar (PV) 7.5%
  • Solar PV plants 26.5%
  • Concentrated solar thermal power plants 15%
  • Onshore wind 25%
  • Offshore wind 10%
  • Commercial and government rooftop PV 5.5%
  • Wave devices 0.5%
  • Geothermal 5%
  • Hydroelectric 4.5%
  • Tidal turbines 0.5%

(Source: https://thesolutionsproject.org/infographic/#ca)

Jacobson also assumes, among other things, that we will need 44 percent less energy, due to the increased efficiency of using electricity and not losing energy through burning stuff.

In comparison, here’s what California used in 2014:

  • Coal  6.40%
  • Large Hydroelectric 5.50%
  • Small Hydroelectric 0.90%
  • Natural Gas  44.50%
  • Nuclear  8.50%
  • Oil   0.00%
  • Biomass  2.50%
  • Geothermal   4.40%
  • Solar    4.20%
  • Wind   8.10%
  • Unspecified Sources of Power    15.00%

(source: http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/electricity/total_system_power.html)

One more table.  To compare the two, I lumped the appropriate categories and did some math.  My basic formula was, using Jacobson’s percent (J)and  the 2014 California mix percent (C): (0.56J-C)/C.  The point of the 0.56 is that Jacobson assumes we’ll get by with 44 percent less total energy due to the efficiencies of not burning anything.  Here’s how California’s energy budget would change to go total Jacobson:

Adjusted Proportional Difference between Jacobson and 2014

  • Coal     -100%
  • Hydroelectric (all)       -61%
  • Natural Gas     -100%
  • Nuclear            -100%
  • Oil       0%
  • Biomass           -100%
  • Geothermal     -36%
  • Solar (total)     627%
  • Wind (total)    142%
  • Wave and Tidal           N/A (grows from zero to one percent)
  • Unspecified Sources of Power           -100%

That’s not so scary, is it?  Why would anyone think this would be infeasible?  Let’s look a little deeper.

The first thing is that everything will run on electricity, from kitchen stoves to long distance transport.  You might think that natural gas bakes better cakes and browns meat better, but you’re burning largely methane. You know, the stuff that leaked out of Porter Ranch?  The gas that’s a worse greenhouse gas than CO2?  Sorry.  In a deeply decarbonized future you’re going to be stuck sauteing on an electric stove and grumbling the entire time, and stuff just won’t bake right until you adjust your recipes.

Still, electrifying a home isn’t that hard, so why complain?  Slap a rack of solar panels on the roof, screw a bunch of storage batteries to the garage wall, and you’re set, right?  Not really, but that’s the easy stuff.  It’s harder for an apartment building to go solar, even if the landlord is cool with becoming the power supplier for all her tenants.  Cars can go electric, but what about trucks, buses, bulldozers, even the 4WD vehicles all those field botanists need to survey all those sites for new solar plants?  What about road trips into the mountains?  How do you recharge while you’re camping?  All these systems still need to be developed.  Jacobson’s website has a timetable for how these new inventions are supposed to roll out up to 2050 (along with a lot of other calculations I’m ignoring for now–check out his websites if you’re trying to understand my overly simplistic summary).

It will be a weird future:  I don’t know what will replace jets, military equipment, heavy construction equipment, or any of the other huge gas guzzlers.  Will cargo ships sport kite sails and huge decks of solar panels?  Will giant wind turbines sprout from every former oil rig?  Will we see zeppelins flying the rich around while the rest of us ride the train, and botanists survey the desert on muleback?  A lot needs to be invented really soon.

On the environmental side, we’re talking about a 6-fold growth in solar, from less than 1/20th today’s energy mix to over half of the smaller energy mix in Jacobson’s proposed future.  While I’m not that concerned about the growth rate (solar doubled last year, as I understand it), I am very worried about where we’re going to put all those panels and solar thermal plants.  According to some of the data he posted, he’s thinking of over 2,794 km² of total solar plant area 0.6% of the state, of which about 1,159 km² were for photovoltaic and the rest for solar thermal plants, 330 of them.  This is something the California Native Plant Society has dealt with for years, trying to get solar developers–the honest ones at least–to put their big solar farms on degraded farmland and similar brown fields, rather than on wilderness, as at Ivanpah.  Ivanpah, you may remember, is a 16km² solar thermal plant that’s had a lot of problems, from frying birds and itself to not sending out the electricity its contracted to send.  Building all that solar is a hard problem, made worse by the fact that many of my fellow CNPSers rightly think that huge solar plants are a blight on the landscape (as are wind farms), and don’t want any of them built where they can see them.  This kind of short-sighted NIMBYism is another problem.  It’s not that I don’t sympathize, it’s that we’re stuck picking among least bad options, as the status quo is unsustainable.  Are solar panels as far as the eye can see preferable to severe climate change?  That’s the choice we’re asked to make, except that solar panels are immediate and visible, while climate change takes centuries.

Shall we talk about where to put the 31,495 wind turbines?  That’s 24,922 onshore, the rest offshore.  Actually, this isn’t so bad, as there are already 13,000 wind turbines in California, mostly in Tehachapi, San Gorgonio and Altamont Pass.   Wind turbines take a big toll on bats and birds, but (probably) we won’t have to turn every windy ridge into a animal shredder.

So that’s just a first look at the power structure.  What about everything else?  Of course, newer homes will have to built to hold solar panels, so a new building casting shade on its neighbor could cause a lawsuit, rather than grumbling.  This will affect urban design, since we may well have to accommodate different kinds of vehicles and heavy equipment.  There will be a push to make cities more walkable and bikable, which may well make them even more expensive than they are now.  Conversely, some of those old, dead 1950s gas stations in small towns all over California might get rebuilt as battery exchange stations, revitalizing the businesses around them.  Little towns like Mariposa and Lone Pine might suddenly require huge power infrastructure, as tourists going into Yosemite and Death Valley require a charge before they head for the park.  Or are we going to put giant recharging stations in our parks?

But that’s just what happens if we follow Jacobson’s plan, and simultaneously decarbonize and electrify California.  Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be the only thing going on.  California’s future is more likely to a mosaic of multiple futures smashed together and fused.  These other futures include:

  • Continued CO2 and equivalent emissions, due to business as usual, as defended by the petrochemical industrial complex, one of the biggest industries on the planet.
  • Various and sundry earthquakes and megastorms.  As I noted in the California in the High Altithermal series, when these hit is as important as where, but they add huge random unknowns to California’s future
  • Surface water decline, groundwater depletion, and water politics.  This is the land of the Cadillac Desert, after all, and within a few decades, we’re pretty much going to run out of groundwater, lose a lot of agriculture, and depend increasingly on runoff as our snowpack gets smaller every year.  Did you know that at Donner Pass, more precipitation has fallen as rain than as snow for the last three years?  I found that out last Saturday.   If water gets too short, I predict mass emigration in coming decades, even if Oregon builds a border wall to keep us weedbacks in our place.
  • Politics, which we can’t escape.  For example, there appear to be moves afoot to institutionalize pay to play schemes in development, where developers buy “mitigation credits” (whatever those are) instead of actually mitigating for the damage they cause.  And there’s water politics.  And gas politics.  And environmental politics.  And consumer politics.  And NIMBYism. ad nauseum infinitum. Too bad Mark Twain isn’t around, because he’d have a field day with us now.

All of these possible futures will collide, and the resulting mosaic of twisted and broken ambitions will be the future of California.  I’ll deal with the other futures in coming posts.

What did I miss?


13 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You really were burned out. The title has a misspelling of “electric”. Or was that supposed to be “eclectic”? (it almost fits the content) 🙂 Real comment later.

Comment by atolley1954

D’oh! No, I was trying to do three things at once, two of which were dealing with more environmental stuff.

Comment by Heteromeles

A couple of small points. I’ve read articles that state that wind turbines and Ivanpah aren’t bird killing machines after all. And that while the problem is real it’s also minuscule eg 200 birds not 28,000. That was propaganda that was spread by competing interests that just won’t go away despite being untrue. That story denying the problem may itself by propaganda of pro-wind/solar interests. So which is it? If the problem is not real then I’d rather you didn’t keep repeating it.

Then there’s the story about Ivanpah not generating it’s contracted supply. Again, I’ve read conflicting stories that a) its on target and b) it’s wildly missing it’s targets. So which is it?

Then there’s the pro-nuclear people who think Jacobson is in league with the devil and renewables promotion is a spin conspiracy by the natural gas industry!

So much bullshit on every side.

Meanwhile, I suspect the actual future is all of the above used to justify continuing business as usual for as long as possible. We’ll keep adding technical fixes like renewables, fracked natural gas and Teslas to make up for losing coal and oil. And the result will be as predicted by the Club of Rome technical fix models; a higher peak and a bigger crash.

Comment by Julian Bond

A lot of activity that involves energy can use electricity but the trade off in efficiency means a decrease in resilience. Blackouts and brownouts mean everything, EVERYTHING will ground to a halt whether the outages were caused by software, climatic, terrorist or technological failures. Of course airplanes ships and ag and heavy equipment cannot and never will run on electrons and so there will be a need for stinky diesel but who gets to access shrinking supplies of that fuel? Just AG and airplanes? Whose airplanes BTW? Just Airforce One and CEOs in their Gulfstreams or those renewable energy skeptics like me still rattling around in their old diesel Mercedes sedans and refuse to buy into the self driving Electric car myth promoted by Tesla and Google. The decentralized Electric renewable technology will need a lot more maintenance and replacement resources going forward than a typical huge coal or gas plant which needs little besides burner and boiler maintenance. Wind turbines especially the giant ones have short lives and big moving parts which wear out and need big diesel powered cranes lifting big heavy replacement parts from Scandinavia Germany and China. Never gonna happen especially in California which is the poster child for sprawl. Think about all those self driving Google cars caught immobile in traffic jams From Ventura to San Diego in 100 degree summer days watching their battery level meters sliding left to zero while they frantically check their smart phones looking for the nearest charging station. Who will fight those legendary California wildfires which use surplus tankers and vast fleets of diesel vehicles and heavy equipment? The fact is California can certainly use many forms of renewable energy going forward but there is no way that renewables will be able to power the energy profligacy of the Industrial California lifestyle as currently configured. California, especially Southern California has the potential to enjoy a summer lifestyle experienced by the energy insecure denizens of Iraq. Think Baghdad by the Sea.

Comment by cal48koho

1. Your figures for CA assume 0% oil. That is wrong. Transportation uses oil that you do not account for, and Jacobson includes transportation in his calculations. Fo you are using the wrong table.

2. Gas is not just for cooking. It is used for heating. It is thermally much more efficient to burn gas than to convert it to electricity and them heat with it. Therefore abandoning gas will increase energy demand for heating, not decrease it, as Jacobson assumes.

3. Buses can easily go electric. Indeed, in cities, we used to have them. They were called trolley buses. Today we would just swap out batteries at the ends of each route. Some heavy duty vehicles will still need liquid fuels. They can be synthesized. Expensive, but that might be the price. Intercity trucks could go all electric, either with battery swapping or with new infrastructure to supply power from te highway. But, of course, if liquid fuels become expensive, making transport expensive, this will drive local manufacturing which will offset demand. More likely the US could become more like EU, using electric locomotives rather than diesel and more goods intercity by rail, using electric trucks for local distribution. For personal transport, the automakers are already looking at the Uber model with sel- driving cars as being more probable. Individual car ownership may decline, especially in cities.

3. You seem to assume retrofit PV panels on houses. A much better solution would be to spend the money and make houses much more energy efficient. Simple things like injecting insulating foam into the walls and thickening roof insulation. LEED should be used for new house construction. This obviates much of the heating (and cooling) needed. Having said that, expect cheap PV panels to be draped everywhere.
[Which also fixes your other issues – like recharging while camping. People will buy/rent/have access to, solar PV/battery/distributed electric rechargers in a multitude of places.]

Jacobson is offering a pure solution of the possible. Your conclusion is likely to be more correct. But that doesn’t mean that we should aim high and try to work past the FUD and naysayers.

Comment by atolley1954

@ cal48koho . You are wrong about electric aircraft. They are being designed and developed today. Initially, they will be short range, e.g. SF to LA, but the range will extend.

Comment by atolley1954

Great! A couple of quick notes: You can easily search the web for research on bird and bat kills from wind turbines, but so far as I know, they are a real problem, and I’ve heard this from biologists who do body counts around them.

Another note is that I’m doing this section car crash style, which is where I start with a couple of possible futures (in this case, business as usual, the Jacobson all-electric plan, running out of water) and then start thinking about what happens when they collide. None of us are going to agree on the outcome, but that’s fine.

Here I wanted to really look at an all-electric future. Can we develop things like all-electric airplanes? Or are we stuck using, at best, syn-fuels (or ammonia?) to power them and other big machines? Or are we stuck with diesel and carbon emissions? The answers really matter, because the same lovely department that made my life interesting for the last three weeks (CALFIRE and their bosses, the Board of Forestry) is also in charge of planting a lot of trees for carbon sequestration in state forests. They believe that controlled burns are part of a good plan for carbon sequestration, too, and I’ll let you contemplate what that means for California’s climate mitigation strategy.

Comment by Heteromeles

I don’t mean to derail the discussion. However, wind turbine bird deaths is another of those things where I no longer know what to think because there are conflicting stories and it’s not always easy to tell if the source is real or propaganda. There are reports that it’s simply not a problem compared with the number of birds and other sources of mortality. eg
eg <1 bird death per turbine per year.

By contrast it turns out that one of the most widely quoted reports about the dangers of wind turbines to birds was funded by an oil company. Which then gets repeated ad nauseum by the anti-environmental group people pushing nuclear power.

At which point I no longer know what to believe. I can do all the internet research I want and I'll just disappear down a rabbit hole of competing spin.

Exactly the same thing happens with Ivanpah and concentrated solar power. Is it 28,000 burning birds pa or is it 200? And was the problem completely dealt with by adjusting the algorithm for mirror direction in idle mode so it doesn't converge in mid air. Anti-Ivanpah people will repeat the story that "solar kills up to 28,000 birds a year". Pro-Ivanpah people will keep telling you it wasn't much of a problem and now its no problem at all. How am I as a naive amateur supposed to tell the difference?

But all that is a small part of the important story you're trying to tell, so I'll shut up now and let you carry on.

ps. Shellenberger vs Jacobson is an entertaining boxing match to watch from the sidelines.

Comment by Julian Bond

The way I categorize these things is that I tend to believe field biologists over environmentalists unless I have reason to do otherwise (there are people known as “biostitutes” or “conslutants.”). But it depends on the environmentalists. The group I’m most active with, the California Native Plant Society, works hard for science-based solutions, as does the Nature Conservancy and a number of others.

On the other hand, industry shills are just that, and you have to ask why they’re getting paid to say what they’re getting paid.

On the wind, I’ve talked directly with people doing the surveys on wind turbines, and I trust them. They say there’s a problem, and I believe them. It’s not an extinction-level problem, but it is a problem.

With Ivanpah, I don’t know how many birds got fried, but some did. What I do know is that the most recent fire was where enough mirrors got misaligned to heat up stuff that wasn’t supposed to be heated. This is a predictable problem, but it points out the weakness of the design, which is that they’ve got tens of thousands of big, frequently moving mirrors that have to move accurately all the time. That’s actually fairly fragile compared with a PV panel, even when said panel is mounted on a two-axis moving base to track the sun. Even if the PV tracking system fails, it still generates some power, while Ivanpah can incinerate itself if its mirrors lose track of where to point. The advantage of solar thermal is supposedly that thermal inertia allows it to continue generating heat into the evening, and that’s probably a good thing. On the other hand, a decent battery will do much the same, and we’re getting better batteries.

Environmentally, Ivanpah is actually trying to let the native plants grow under the mirrors, which complicates maintenance work. Most solar plants prefer bare ground around their panels, which is simpler to maintain but has more environmental effects.

Hope this straightens things out a bit.

Comment by Heteromeles

There was an article in MIT Technology Review that suggested that solar thermal was no longer cost competitive with solar PV, at least in the US, and that solar thermal companies were now pitching their installations in other countries, like China.

As for covering swathes of CA with solar panels, yes it might be ugly, but it also might make a lot of sense by adding shade from the warming climate that is drying us out. Surely suburban car parks should be roofed with such panels. Not so long ago I calculated teh energy output by roofing over the California aqueduct with PV and it turns out that a significant fraction of CA electrical energy is created. And it would reduce evaporation losses.

Further out, we can do as Japan is starting, place the panels on water. More expensive, but the surface is free and with some design, could even make the ocean below it more productive.

In states like CA, I see no reason why solar PV shouldn’t make up much of the electrical energy demand. Now it will cause problems, not least upsetting energy markets (see recent -ve power price in Germany) and possibly end teh utility model, but I don’t see why there are fundamental reasons why solar couldn’t replace fossil fuels.

As regard synfuels, as long as they are created from oxidized carbon sources, I see no reason why not to use them as they are now carbon neutral.

Architecture can be very conservative, but new engineered wood materials are being proposed for skyscraper height buildings, acting as carbon sinks and requiring much less concrete. Net carbon emissions are far lower and even negative. Creative solutions and changed behavior are possible, even if society tends to resist many changes.

Comment by Alex Tolley

The numbers you posted for 2014 are about California’s electricity supply, not its total energy supply. California actually uses a lot of oil energy at present for transportation.

The California WWS scenario is laid out in more detail here: http://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CaliforniaWWS.pdf

The 44%-reduction number is calculated relative to a 2050 somewhat-business-as-usual baseline, not the present. In the 100% WWS scenario each category of energy use except transportation is actually expected to increase over 2010.

Jacobson assumes use of hydrogen for applications where batteries aren’t good enough (like air transportation and oceangoing ships). I think that hydrogen is a dead end; it’s just too hard to store relative to its energy content. But renewable synthetic hydrogen could be transformed into ammonia or synthetic liquids for a more practical approach to the same goal.

I also think that solar thermal has been overtaken by events: it’s more expensive, much more water intensive, and more difficult to run than solar PV. It’s also harder to site and more sensitive to variations in sun intensity. The touted thermal storage benefit seems less important as electrical storage gets bigger and cheaper. Some projects — like Ivanpah — aren’t even built with storage capacity, so you REALLY have to wonder about what benefits could possibly offset all the negatives.

Comment by Matt

Thanks Matt!

I’d hazard a guess that ammonia is either too obscure, or NOx is too well known as an air pollutant, for it to be a good alternative energy storage medium, if the goal (as in the paper) is to eliminate as much air pollution as possible. The irony is that burning H2 with air generates NOx as well, but obviously not at the volume that burning ammonia would.

Comment by Heteromeles

[…] I’ve already done the calculations for California (link to blog entry), I’ll just repeat a table here as an example of the kinds of changes Jacobson proposes. The […]

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