Electrical Generation in Southern California

By Adam Grosher

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Early in the 20th century there were two large electricity providers in southern California. The first is the Department of Water and Power (DWP), and the other is Southern California Edison (SCE). The DWP is a municipally owned utility whereas SCE is a corporation with investors. These two utility providers serve all consumers in Southern California.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the DWP constructed an aqueduct that flowed from the Owen’s valley to Los Angeles. DWP also constructed hydroelectric power plants along this aqueduct. This combination of water and electricity allowed Los Angeles to have the resources necessary to grow, which it would do during the Second World War.

The events of the OPEC oil embargo and Air Quality Standards of the early 1970s forced DWP to diversify its energy supply. For many years coal fired power plants were the primary energy generators, but this has changed in recent years. Energy consumption in southern California is approximately 70% business and industrial, and the rest constitutes consumers and other city electrical needs.

SCE came about as a result of many mergers and acquisitions of various utility companies in Southern California. Thomas Edison’s patent of three-wire conduit transmission lines was the best means of transporting electricity to the consumers, which gave the SCE a competitive advantage over other utility suppliers (Lundsten).

In the present day, San Diego Gas & Electric is another major utilities provider in Southern California along with the others mentioned.

(Source: “California Energy Maps”)

Looking at this map of Southern California we can get a general sense of the electrical generation portfolio for the region. There are many red circles representing natural gas fired powered plants, and a number of blue circles that represent hydroelectric. There are even a few highly concentrated wind and solar power plants. However, if you were to look for an upside down yellow triangle it will be a bit more difficult to find, as there are far fewer of those on the map. These upside down yellow triangles denote coal fired power plants. Of course, there is an explanation for this. It is no secret that coal is the dirtiest burning cheap fossil fuel. Southern California has had a history of poor air quality as a result of burning extensive fossil fuels. This problem is exacerbated by the geographical landscape of Southern California, coastal breezes, and the inversion layer phenomenon. As such, the state government has taken initiative to protect its citizens.

California has some of the most ambitious energy policies in the entire United States. California first adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards in 2002 in Senate Bill 1078, which required 20% of California’s energy to come from renewable resources by the year 2017. In 2003 this 20% deadline was pushed forward to 2010. In 2005, the goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020 was proposed. This latest proposal was officially made into law in 2011 and is the latest update to California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (“Total Electricity System Power”). The rationale for these measures is obvious: the more renewable sources of energy we have, the less fossil fuel we will burn, the better air quality will be, and the fewer greenhouse gases will be emitted.

So, let’s take a look at how well California is doing in achieving its goal of 33% renewables by 2020:

(Source: “Total Electricity System Power”).

It appears that renewables only account for about 14.5% of California’s total energy mix in 2011. However, the RPS goal of 20% specified that retail electricity sold to consumers should be 20% renewables. In this respect CA electricity providers PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison succeeded in meeting this benchmark. The next benchmark is 25% renewable from 2014-2016. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, it is clear that there is some considerable progress to be made in the overall CA energy profile.

Our map of California did not necessarily tell the whole story about coal electricity dependence. Coal electricity is imported from the Southwestern United States in far greater quantity than it is produced in California and it accounts for 8.4% of California’s total electricity profile. It is not unusual for widespread progress to take some time, so let’s compare these numbers with those from 2002 to gauge progress.

(Source: “Total Electricity System Power”).

California’s coal dependence has dropped dramatically from 20% to 8.4% in 9 years. However, it appears that of all renewables, the clearest sign of improvement comes in the form of wind-generated electricity, but most others remained stagnant. In total, renewables have been slow to take off increasing only 3.5% from 11% in 2002. Does this mean that the future for renewables is a dim one?

The answer is “no”, many states, including California are working harder to meet RPS goals. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in the first half of 2012, natural gas and renewables have dominated new energy additions. California specifically added a little over 100MW of Solar Capacity and 600MW of wind electricity generation capacity. Additionally, the Sunrise Powerlink Transmission project transmission lines (costing $1.9 billion) has connected isolated renewable electricity generating stations to San Diego County. This has added 800MW of energy capacity to the grid, thus alleviating some of the 2150MW strain that has been added due to the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant closure (EIA “New Transmission”). In addition, The California Energy Commission has a great page that lists all power plants that have been proposed, are under construction, and are operational from 1996 onward. http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/all_projects.html#review. Use this website to keep up to date with the status of new projects and to get an idea of California’s progress toward the RPS 33% goal.

There is evidence that shows the 2020 goal of 33% renewables requires an amplification of efforts, however. To increase from 20% to 33% requires considerable infrastructural adaptation. Due to the vast difficulties this kind of undertaking carries with it, such as planning an approach (distributed generation or wind or out of state delivery) in order to meet the ambitious goal of 33% renewables by 2020 the CA government will need to put this RPS goal at the front of their agendas (California Public Utilities Commission). One example of these efforts is the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project undertaken by the Southern California Edison Company. SCE is connecting new wind farms in Kern County, CA using new transmission technologies in order to meet the 2020 target. This is one instance showing that infrastructural adaptations are needed, not just more wind farms or solar panels (“Renewable Energy”).

Another point worth noting from the data above is the degree to which California depends on power from out-of-state generators. Currently, California imports about a quarter of its energy demands (277 million MWh in 2010) from other states (“Natural Gas Supply by Region”; “A quarter of California’s Electricity Comes From Out of State”). Below are statistics that show natural gas importing patterns over the past decade.

(Source: “Historical Natural Gas Wholesale Prices”)

Natural gas represents the most prominent portion of our electrical energy generation. From these data it is clear that most of our natural gas comes from out of state. Also, since 2000, a much greater portion of this supply has come from the Rocky Mountains region. The increasing popularity of “fracking” as a mechanism to retrieve natural gas has led to a steady decrease in price for natural gas, making it a more attractive energy resource.

In addition, natural gas fired power plants are an appealing electrical energy-generating resource for California because of its ability to be switched online quickly. This is advantageous because it gives utility providers greater supply security by allowing them to meet peak load requirements.

The energy crisis in the early 2000s left an indelible mark on California’s energy policy. Rolling blackouts and unstable utilities prices cost California billions of dollars. One of the main drawbacks to renewables such as wind and solar is that the energy supply is intermittent. Utilities must supply reliable electricity, which would be easier if renewables were flexible, but this is not the case for all renewables. In order to effectively implement widespread renewable electricity there must be infrastructural adaptations (Fox-Penner).

There are ways around this intermittency however. First is developing both intermittent as well as more reliable renewable sources. More reliable renewables include hydroelectric, biofuel, and geothermal. Coupling intermittent solar and wind with reliable generators increases the overall reliability of the energy supply. Second, developing transmission lines to increase connections also boosts reliability. Third, implementing infrastructural technology like smart meters that can help smooth electrical demand by differing use of smart appliances to non-peak hours. Fourth, developing storage technologies for intermittent renewables because often the highest electrical generation does not correlate with peak demand. Fifth, weather forecasting can be a great help to see when peak load generators will be needed (Jacobson).

Looking to the future, CA energy policymakers must decide on the appropriate way to implement the considerations described in the previous paragraph. There is no clear answer as to how best implement these different aspects, but a decision must be made swiftly not only to ensure that the 33% RPS is to be met by 2020, but also that there will be adequate means to handle growing demand. Econometric forecasts project that in the year 2022, peak demand at its lowest will be 68,162 and 74,489 at its highest, compare this to the present peak of 60,310. Total consumption is projected to increase from 278,475 presently to between 308,768 and 327,781 (http://www.energy.ca.gov/). Real time demand can be found at this website: http://www.caiso.com/outlook/SystemStatus.html.

Works Cited

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“California’s Electric Investor-owned Utilities.” Service Areas. California Energy Commission, n.d. Web. <http://www.energy.ca.gov/maps/serviceareas/CA_Electric_IOU.pdf>.

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<http://www.sce.com/PowerandEnvironment/Renewables/Wind/default.htm>