Too much sun? How California met an unexpected energy challenge

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – It’s a common sight across the state: rows of suburban homes topped with solar panels.

But as California works toward its ambitious clean energy vision, a counterintuitive challenge has emerged: The state is, at times, generating more solar energy than it can handle. It is to the point where a lot of net energy will be wasted.

The phenomenon is known as the “duck curve”, which other states are likely to join as they increase their own solar production. The duck’s belly is the time of day when solar production can exceed demand. Because solar energy depends on the sun, the curve is often most noticeable on sunny days during the spring, when not as many people are using power and running their air conditioners.

“We come in at certain times of the year, especially in the spring, when the demand for electricity is not that high yet, and we have a lot of solar production, where, under certain conditions, there is more than California really can. use,” said Elliot Mainzer, CEO of California Independent System Operator, which manages 80% of the state’s electricity flow.

“Under those conditions, we take advantage of the significant amount of transmission connectivity we have with other parts of the West, and we export a lot of that energy for other utilities across the Western United States,” he said.

“And under certain extreme conditions, we have to cut it off and turn it off,” he said.

For more on this story, tune in to “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 pm ET / 5:30 pm CT or check your local listings.

According to data from the Independent System Operator, in recent years, the amount of renewable energy has been cut, or wasted, due to oversupply and so-called congestion, when there is more electricity there is more than the transmission lines in certain areas can handle. So far this year, the state has lost nearly 2.6 million megawatts of renewable energy — most of it solar — more than enough to power every home in San Francisco for a year.

Mainzer said adding the transmission lines would help increase the flow of electricity across the state and is proposing to allow an overhaul to do so.

“When you build a new solar project or when you build a new battery or a new wind project or a new geothermal resource, if you don’t have transmission lines available to access that and deliver it to customers, the that generation. It’s stuck,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is also pushing to add more batteries to store that excess energy for use during peak demand. And state regulators have taken a more controversial approach with the California Public Utilities Commission: drastically cutting financial incentives for homeowners who want to install solar.

The move upset many in the rooftop solar industry, like Ed Murray, president of the California Solar and Storage Association, which operates Aztec Solar out of Sacramento. The changes, he said, have been disastrous for his business. He said he has fired 10 employees in the past year. “Sales went flat, because nobody wanted it anymore,” Murray said. “It wasn’t productive or cost-effective to make solar, and we were left to figure out what we do now.”

According to the California Solar and Storage Association, residential solar installations fell 66% in the first quarter of 2024 compared to the same period in 2022. The trade group estimates that since the state changed the incentive structure, known as net metering, 17,000. green jobs have been lost across the state.

To be cost-effective with the state’s new incentives, homeowners must now install batteries as well as solar panels, but that can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 or more.

“It’s an easy fix, but it’s an expensive fix,” Murray said. “Because people don’t want or can’t afford batteries, unfortunately.”

In a statement, Newsom defended the state’s policies, saying the state has already had nearly 100 days this year when clean energy exceeded 100% of demand for part of the day.

“No other state in America comes close to California’s solar production,” he said. “We’re generating almost twenty times as much solar as we did ten years ago, powering millions of homes with clean energy. And now we’re adding more batteries faster than ever to help capture that energy for use at night.”

Supporters of the state’s change in incentives also express concerns about equity, arguing that switching to solar can raise the cost of energy for those who don’t have it or can’t afford it.

In making the announcement in 2022, John Reynolds, a member of the Public Utilities Commission, said net metering has “left an incredible legacy and brought solar to hundreds of thousands of Californians, but it’s also incredibly expensive.” for non-solar customers and that reform was overdue.”

Murray disputes that argument and says most of his clients have made annual salaries of $50,000 to $60,000, often financed through loans at a time when interest rates have also risen.

Given California’s role as a leader in solar energy, Murray believes other states are watching and may follow suit.

“I’m hearing from Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, Massachusetts that they’re looking at copying the rules, that they’re going to change the rules of the game,” he said. “They’re upset because it’s going to hurt across the board.”

“As we go forward, California goes, so usually does the rest of the country,” he said.

It’s an example that as California moves full steam ahead with its historic clean energy transition – with a goal of reaching 100% clean energy by 2045 – new challenges are casting a shadow on the path to a renewable future.

“There’s no way we’re going to get there without a solar roof,” Murray said. “Electric vehicles, heat pumps, electric range tops — this won’t happen without the sun. Period.”

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