The Bad News About California’s Solar Power Boom

5:01 minutes

Solar panels in the Mojave desert. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior.

California leads the nation in solar power. Nearly 14 percent of the state’s energy is generated by rooftop and utility-scale solar. And on March 11 of this year, for a brief period during midday, 40 percent of the state’s electricity was coming from the sun.

But the solar surplus comes with a problem: The state’s energy grid can’t deal with all that extra renewable energy. To avoid blackouts due to the energy glut, California actually had to pay neighboring states to take the extra energy on dozens of occasions this year.

[This Brooklyn inventor prints solar panels in his backyard.]

Ivan Penn, an energy reporter at the Los Angeles Times, investigated California’s solar situation, and he joins Ira to talk about the pros and cons of this surfeit of renewable energy.

Segment Guests

Ivan Penn

Ivan Penn is an energy reporter at the Los Angeles Times in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play Good Thing Bad Thing because every story has a flip side, and today’s story is about the fast-moving solar power revolution going on in California. It’s the country’s number one solar-producing state, with solar farms not just out in the desert but on up and down the state’s agricultural center too– the Central Valley, as they call it out there.

And in one day this spring, 40% of all the energy pumping into the grid during midday was from solar. 40%. But that solar surplus comes with a not-so-bright side.

Here to talk about the good and the bad is Ivan Penn, energy reporter at the LA Times. His investigation into California’s solar energy market can be found at sciencefriday.com/solar. He joins us by Skype. Welcome, Ivan.

IVAN PENN: It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: So you have all this clean energy, but that’s the good news, right?

IVAN PENN: That is the good news. We’ve had tremendous growth in clean energy, solar and wind in particular. Renewables now make up about 27% of California’s energy mix.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s growing all the time.

IVAN PENN: It is. I mean, if you consider that, in national even, solar made up about 39% of all of the capacity that was added. And for California, that means now solar is about 13% to 14%– both utility and rooftop solar.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. So how could this have a bad side?

IVAN PENN: Well, the trouble is that we don’t have a clear policy to manage all of the renewables that we’re adding to the grid. And the state is working on it, but what that has done has led to us paying other states to take our excess solar power.

IRA FLATOW: They don’t get it for free. They actually– you pay them.

IVAN PENN: Well, that’s right. Well, it can be free, but it’s sort of your basic economics here. If they don’t need it, but we need to get rid of it, then we might have to actually pay them to take it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So where are we headed? What needs to change? Do we have to modify the grid? Batteries? What’s your take on all of this?

IVAN PENN: Well, the holy grail is viewed as storage. And that can come in a few different forms, but batteries, of course, is what we’re looking at– Tesla and then their major competitor, [INAUDIBLE]. And getting that where it needs to be, both residentially and on the utility scale, that has been a focal point.

IRA FLATOW: And the cost, then, of solar power is always coming down, isn’t it?

IVAN PENN: It has over the last– if you think back just a decade ago, solar was a blip on the screen. But now, the price has dropped so much that we’ve gone from less than 1% in 2010 in California, as far as solar, to where I mentioned that it’s now at 13% and 14%.

IRA FLATOW: And the batteries are key to all of this because you can store it up. I understand that there’s a special deal in Arizona linking batteries and solar power in a plant?

IVAN PENN: We saw a historically low price with the Tucson Electric Power and a solar and battery combination. So you’re seeing batteries also drop in price. And you may see, in the next two or three years, along the same lines as we’ve seen with solar.

IRA FLATOW: But won’t cheap natural gas hurt that?

IVAN PENN: Well, natural gas– obviously, the fracking boom brought natural gas in lower than coal, and that’s been a big challenge for coal. But what you’ve seen with the solar and the battery combination in Arizona is a price that was actually lower than natural gas.

IRA FLATOW: Lower than natural gas? You can do a battery and solar combination with a power plant that brings it in lower the natural gas? That’s a game changer, it sounds like.

IVAN PENN: It has stunned the industry that that kind of price could come in because batteries were viewed as still too expensive, but that seems to be changing.

IRA FLATOW: Ivan Penn, energy reporter at the LA Times. You can follow him at sciencefriday.com/solar. Thanks for taking time. Good holiday to you, Ivan.

We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’re going to talk about US weapons labs, and actions that expose scientists to radiation, after this break. Stay with us.

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