How the sun is helping push the state toward 100 percent renewable energy.
Moss Landing in Monterey Bay is the world’s largest battery storage facility for solar and other renewable energy.David Monniaux / Wikimedia Commons C.C. Share-Alike 3.0 License
In early September of 2022, California and large areas of other western states endured a heat wave like nothing they’d ever experienced. Peaking on Sept. 7 when nearly 61.3 million people in California, Arizona and Nevada found themselves under “extreme heat” alerts, the scalding conditions were caused by an especially large and persistent “heat dome”—an extreme high-pressure system that traps hot air and makes it even hotter.
Heat domes and their accompanying hot weather have become increasingly frequent and long-lasting in California over recent years, a dangerous phenomenon driven by human-caused climate change. But for Californians living through the brutal heat wave, the concern was more immediate—would the electricity stay on? Or would California’s power grid fail, causing blackouts and leaving desperate residents with no air conditioning or refrigeration as temperatures shot to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in numerous cities including San Jose, Napa and Santa Rosa—and even as high as 116 in Sacramento and Merced?
The grid, however, did not break down. Despite numerous warnings, California never had to shut the power off during what Scientific American called the region’s “monster heat wave.”
How did the state pull off this rather remarkable feat? The reasons are complex, but one significant factor was solar energy, stored in the state’s network of utility-scale batteries, that is, giant batteries that occupy entire buildings, or even whole facilities once used as fossil-fuel-powered energy plants. California draws far more electricity from industrial-size batteries than any other state—almost four gigawatts as of Sept. 1, 2022, according to statistics from the California Independent System Operator Corporation, known as CAISO.
Altogether, solar power comprised 14.2 percent of California’s total power mix, about 39.5 gigawatts in 2021, 33.3 of those gigawatts produced in-state, according to California Energy Commission statistics.
Solar energy, it appears, is not only essential for California to meet its stated goal of 100 percent clean energy, but for keeping the state’s lights on, particularly during heat waves and other periods of high stress on the power grid.
What Is Solar Energy?
The sun is 4.5 billion years old, and for that whole time, it has been the source of energy that powers pretty much everything on Earth (which is essentially the same age as the sun). After a little less than a billion years went by, a strange phenomenon called “life” appeared on Earth. The sun’s energy made that rather important development possible as well, and has been powering life on the planet ever since. But not until about 2,700 years ago did human beings figure out how to capture the sun’s energy, in a very limited way, and use it for a specific, human purpose. That purpose, historians believe, was to get rid of pesky ants by burning them using a magnifying glass that concentrated the sun’s rays into a searing-hot beam.
For centuries, human use of controlled solar energy was confined primarily to starting fires for one purpose or another, though Egyptians also used it to cause water to evaporate, an early form of air conditioning. And in the early days of the Roman empire, the public-bath-loving Romans figured out that they could warm up their bathing water by constructing bathhouses with large windows to focus the sun’s energy.
The game changer came in 1839 when a 19-year-old Frenchman and aspiring physicist named Edmond Becquerel discovered that when he exposed platinum or silver electrodes to sunlight, especially when he coated them with a light-sensitive chemical, they generated electricity.
The Rise of Solar Panels and Storage
It would take another century, but Bequerel’s discovery led to the development of photovoltaic cells, flat panels that convert light from the sun into electricity that can be used to power individual homes and buildings, or channeled into the power grid from industrial-size solar panel fields.
Because solar panels can’t generate electricity when it’s dark, the energy from solar power utilities must be stored in giant batteries and used when it’s most needed. In fact, California is home to the largest utility-size battery facility in the world, the Moss Landing Battery Storage facility on Monterey Bay. The battery facility occupies the decommissioned Moss Landing Power Plant, whose iconic, 500-foot smokestacks (pictured above) still rise above the bay.
It should be noted that, like all energy sources, battery storage comes with drawbacks. The Moss Landing facility has been through three shutdowns since going online in 2020. In 2021, a malfunctioning fire prevention system triggered sprinklers that drenched more than 7,000 giant batteries with water. Then in September of 2022, at a separate facility at the Moss Landing plant, a battery pack manufactured by Tesla caught fire, causing a shutdown of that facility—though not the adjacent 400-megawatt battery facility operated by the Vistra company—and some nearby areas along Highway 1.
According to the Solar Energies Industry Association (SEIA), California continues to lead the nation in solar energy production, generating more than 37 gigawatts as of the second quarter of 2022. The SEIA calculated that one megawatt of solar electricity is enough to supply 190 homes with power. One gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts.
Utility-scale solar facilities do not make up the complete picture of solar energy in California, or the country. In the first three months of 2022, California led the country in rooftop solar installations. Nationwide, 1.2 gigawatts of residential solar went online in the first quarter of 2022—a 30 percent increase over the same time period in 2021. About half of that capacity was installed in California, Texas and Florida, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The Political War Against Solar Power
But solar power seems to be under near constant attack, from political players and competing energy industries. California’s Public Utilities Commission has proposed a plan that, according to EWG, was originated by PG&E and other large power utilities, and would impose a tax of about $50 per month on rooftop solar installations.
The CPUC plan would also scale back the credits residential solar users receive for channeling power into the state’s grid, a practice known as “net metering.” Because rooftop solar often generates more power than a homeowner needs, the state credits the homeowners for the power they contribute to the grid. The CPUC wants to drastically cut that credit from 25 cents per kilowatt-hour to just five cents.
Under the former United States presidential administration, solar energy also took a back seat, at best. While Donald Trump saved most of his anti-renewable energy invective for wind power, he derided solar as well, claiming that solar power was “not strong enough” and “very expensive.”
While Trump never explained what he meant by “not strong," the expense of solar was to a large extent his own doing. In 2019, Trump levied tariffs of up to 30 percent on solar power equipment and materials manufactured outside the U.S., and outside the U.S. is where 80 percent of materials used by the domestic solar industry were made.
Pres. Joe Biden left those tariffs in place until June of 2022, when he announced a 24-month pause in the tariffs on solar panels manufactured in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Tariffs on materials made in China remained in place.
The tariffs were not Trump’s only strike against the solar industry. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—which had a similarly destructive financial impact on the solar industry as it did on most industries—Trump lifted what had been a two-year moratorium on rent payments by solar facilities, as well as wind farms, operating on federal land.
Trump’s sudden termination of the rent “holiday,” which came without warning, left solar and wind companies scrambling to cover back rent payments that reached into the millions. Solar and wind firms paid only $1.1 million in rental fees in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit. The Trump administration interior department said it expected to reel in $50 million in 2020.
Ending the rent moratorium was one of several “speed bumps” installed by Trump to slow the solar industry, according to SEIA President Abigail Ross Parker. At the same time, Trump actively pushed policies to promote the fossil fuel industry.
California, however, remained defiant as it pushed toward its goal of 100 percent renewable energy. In 2020, the state drew 59 percent of its energy from clean sources, including 34.5 percent from all renewables including solar. In fact, on one day—April 24, 2021—the state drew 95 percent of all power used at about 4 pm from renewable sources, totaling about 90 percent for the day. And on May 8, 2022, California did even better, generating enough renewable energy to meet 103 percent of the state’s needs for at least a brief period around 3 pm. About 66 percent of all that renewable energy was solar.