California has so much solar power it has to pay Arizona to use its energy
…But California keeps green-lighting more natural gas plants, thanks to hydrocarbon industry pressure on state regulators, who operate at cross-purposes to the legislature and its targets for renewables.
The regulators justify their natural gas expansion by credulously accepting the power companies’ blithe assertions that power transmission from solar fields is too hard, batteries are too expensive and solar production is just so much cheaper to dial down than gas (whose plants can’t be turned down and up again without huge expense).
Finally, the state has cracked down on new gas plant construction, but there are still new gas plants coming online.
In 2010, power plants in the state generated just over 15% of their electricity production from renewable sources. But that was mostly wind and geothermal power, with only a scant 0.5% from solar. Now that overall amount has grown to 27%, with solar power accounting for 10%, or most of the increase. The solar figure doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of rooftop solar systems that produce an additional 4 percentage points, a share that is ever growing.
Behind the rapid expansion of solar power: its plummeting price, which makes it highly competitive with other electricity sources. In part that stems from subsidies, but much of the decline comes from the sharp drop in the cost of making solar panels and their increased efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity.
The average cost of solar power for residential, commercial and utility-scale projects declined 73% between 2010 and 2016. Solar electricity now costs 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour — the amount needed to light a 100-watt bulb for 10 hours — to produce, or about the same as electricity produced by a natural gas plant and half the cost of a nuclear facility, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Fly over the Carrizo Plain in California’s Central Valley near San Luis Obispo and you’ll see that what was once barren land is now a sprawling solar farm, with panels covering more than seven square miles — one of the world’s largest clean-energy projects. When the sun shines over the Topaz Solar Farm, the shimmering panels produce enough electricity to power all of the residential homes in a city the size of Long Beach, population 475,000.
California invested heavily in solar power. Now there’s so much that other states are sometimes paid to take it [Ivan Penn/LA Times]
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