Commentary: It won’t be long before California can produce all renewable energy, store it, and use it 24/7


Ferry is the director of energy storage and systems at the UC San Diego Center for Energy Research, and lives in Carmel Valley.

If California was its own country, we would have the fifth-largest economy on the planet. So when our economy’s entire electricity sector is 40 percent powered by carbon-free, renewable solar and wind generation, the world takes notice. And that’s what happened this past April as reported by the state’s Independent System Operator, which manages the flow of electricity.

California also achieved a few other milestones in April: over 1.3 million rooftops with solar panels, over 1 million electric cars on its roads, and 6 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of daily energy stored and discharged by the state’s growing fleet of grid- support battery projects. More on that later.

Renewable energy is not the future in California — it is the here and now. As throughout much of the world, solar and wind power are the cheapest new sources of energy in our state today. They’re also helping California contend with major challenges such as the tripling of natural gas prices, the loss of hydropower due to severe drought, and new peaks in summer heat waves that threaten the state’s ability to keep the grid operating reliably.

And that’s where the batteries come in. Over just the past five years, a new technology has come to the forefront that will play a critical role in transforming California’s energy sector: grid-scale battery energy storage. Before long, energy storage technologies will allow us to produce nearly all the power we need from the sun and wind, store it, and use that clean energy around the clock.

Though we’re the fifth-largest economy, we have more battery energy storage than anywhere else in the world. But we’re going to need much more. Six million kWh is a lot, but in the month of April alone 596 million kWh of solar energy went unused in our state because there is simply no way to store it for later.

That’s enough energy to power 100,000 California homes for an entire year.

Imagine if we could store all of that clean energy to use during energy shortages. Enough stored renewable energy would reduce or eliminate the need for peak fossil fuel plants or, even worse, rotating power outages.

And though we’re at the start, the solution is not far off. Advances in battery storage technology can increase our capacity to store renewable energy safely and efficiently for longer periods of time. The good news is that these technologies are available right now.

Today, almost all of California’s energy storage capacity comes from lithium-ion batteries, as prices for these batteries have dropped 80 percent over the past decade while the technology itself continues to advance. But lithium batteries will not be the only solution for California, especially as the energy storage market grows tenfold over the next 10 years and begins to play an important role in our state’s energy supply and grid reliability.

Other energy storage technologies that are non-toxic and non-flammable and have a design life of 25 years are commercially available today and offer sustainable, long-term options that complement and in some cases supersede lithium batteries.

UC San Diego researchers have tested these technologies, including sodium-, zinc- and iron-based batteries that use ethically sourced and earth-abundant raw materials, most of which can be domestically produced. In 2017, UC San Diego interconnected the world’s first iron flow battery to its microgrid, a long-duration storage technology that is ready to play its role in securing our energy future.

California’s energy vision and long-term investments helped create a mass market for solar energy. We should do everything possible to ensure that we leverage and maximize that investment.

One of the ways to do that is to create a viable market for long-duration energy storage, which will lower costs for customers while improving reliability — and, of course, protect our climate.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently assigned $380 million in his 2022-23 budget for new long-duration energy storage technologies. This is a great commitment, but it is only a start, especially as it is estimated that we will need 45 to 55 gigawatts of long duration capacity by 2045 to meet the state’s commitment to 100 percent clean energy. As California is looking at a $68 billion surplus, now is the time to make a down payment on our clean energy future by investing in the missing ingredient — safe, sustainable long-duration energy storage.

Californians take great pride in being innovators and trend setters. What better way to show our leadership than to make 100 percent clean energy affordable and available 24/7.

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