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California's 33% Renewable Energy Goal by 2020: Form or Substance? (Part I–Current Situation)

By Ulrich Decher -- August 10, 2011

California is committed to a renewable energy portfolio to provide 33 percent of its electricity by 2020 from qualifying resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and small hydroelectric facilities.

Can this portfolio succeed? Ambitious goals take more than legislative action to have a chance for success. It takes an actual plan that can be implemented with actual engineering accomplishments.

Drastic Increase Needed

In order to determine the probability of success, we can look at California’s renewable energy sources in prior years. These are available on the Internetand are presented in the following graph.

The plot shows the actual renewable sources of electricity generated in California from 2005 to 2009 and shows the projected increase required to achieve the goal of 33 percent by 2020. Notice that the renewable contribution has been rather constant over the previous years and requires a dramatic increaseto achieve the goal. This implies that something different needs to be done than what has been done it the past, otherwise the projection line will be ever steeper and eventually needs to be abandoned.

Looking at the Pieces

So, exactly which of the renewable energy sources can be increased to reach the goal? It is generally accepted that biomass, geothermal, and small hydro cannot be increased significantly, which leaves the intermittent sources of solar and wind to do the job. Is it reasonable to expect that solar and wind can accomplish the task? The gap that must be closed by 2020 is 21 percent of the total electricity consumption.

Solar currently contributes only 0.3 percent (2009) of the electricity used in California. This contribution is too small to expect a significant contribution by 2020. It might be doubled by 2020, but this is still a small amount.

Windcontributed 2.7 percent (2009). The expectation that it will close the 21-percent renewable gap is unrealistic, however, for the following reasons:

  1. Meeting the goal would require adding about 2-percent wind generation every year for 10 years. This yearly increase is about equal to the total wind generation in California today. It is unreasonable that many wind turbines (tens of thousands) could be built and installed somewhere in California every year.
  2. Another reason is that the California grid (or any grid) cannot handle 20-percent generation from wind energy. It is generally accepted that 20-percent wind capacity is the limit that an isolated grid can handle. (Capacity is quite different from generation for wind turbines. For each unit of capacity addition, there is only ¼ of a unit forgeneration addition because of wind intermittency).

So. if California is able to add the maximum amount of capacity (20 percent), it would only translate to generationof about 5 percent. California, therefore, already has about half the wind energy that the grid could ever handle.

With a crash program to build all the wind turbines that California could handle, the total renewable contribution might increase to 15 percent by 2020 (11.6 percent current contribution, which includes 2.7 percent wind plus 2.3 percent maximum potential wind increase). This is still a long way from 33 percent.

So, the question still is how California expects to reach its 33 percent renewable goal. To shed some light on that question, we must examine California electricity imports.

In-state Coal No–Imports Yes (including coal-by-wire)

California does not generate all the electricity used in the state. The plot below shows the historical imports into California.

The plot shows that in some years, the electricity imports have exceeded 30 percent. The large increase in 2006–2007 has come as a result of the virtual elimination of in-state electricity generation using coal. This reduction in in-state generation needed to be compensated by an increase in imports (largely from imported coal generation).  So far, the net effect of California’s desire to go green is to shift the coal generation to other states.

The reduction of in-state coal generation is shown in the next plot, which shows all the in-state generation. (Both of these plots are normalized to the total 2009 energy consumption because of my desire to use the units of % and, at the same time, show real generation trends that are not confused by changes in electricity demand.)

One of the interesting aspects of the imports graph is the “unspecified” portion of the imports in 2009, which is thusly explained:

Due to legislative changes required by Assembly Bill 162 (2009), the California Air Resources Board is currently undertaking the task of identifying the fuel sources associated with all imported power entering into California.

This unspecified portion of the imports is about 15 percent of the total generation.

If we compare the 2009 imports to the 2008 imports, it is clear that much of this “unspecified” portion actually comes from imported coal generation, with a smaller amount from hydro and natural gas.

If California can reclassify this “unspecified” portion of its energy mix as “renewable,” then a good portion of the renewable portfolio could be met. That appears to be the plan, as will be explained further in tomorrow’s post.

Imported Wind–and Litigation

There has been a substantial increase in the use of wind-generated electricity in California, as shown in the plot below. Most of the increase since 2005 has come from imports.

One might think that a few percent of intermittent wind on the grid would not cause problems, but this amount is an average over a whole year.  This amount is, in fact, a problem at times during the year when demand for electricity is low and the wind generation is high. At those times, electricity distribution systems find themselves in a no-win situation, where they have to break wind generation contracts in order not to violate existing electricity distribution laws. This has already resulted in lawsuits brought against BPAby the wind industry.

These lawsuits need to be defeated. Laws should not give a privilege to one industry whereby other entities would be forced to break existing laws. Furthermore, the wind industry should not be compensated for not producing power at those times. It should be a risk of doing business. Such risks are normally accepted by other industries.

The wind generation that is discussed above is generation that is actually used in California. There also exists wind generation that is not used in California, but is credited to the state. This is discussed in Part II of this article, which will appear tomorrow.


Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe. where this article originally appeared.


  1. Sean  

    I suspect definitions may change. Large hydro contributes 10.7% of California’s energy but is not considered renewable. I know environmentalists hate large hydro but I don’t how it cannot be considered renewable. Change definitions, declare victory and go home.


  2. Tom Tanton  

    When California fails to meet the 33% RPS, the politicos and special interests will likely find the “solution” is the same as when they failed to meet the prior RPS—make it bigger but make it later. That’s how the 33% came to be, in response to the failed 20% RPS. Of course, similar events have happened with transportation options (methanol, electric, ethanol, ultra-low emission, etc.) Expect something similar as well with the AB32 goals, now that cap/trade effectively dead.


  3. Paddy  

    I believe that the securities markets are signaling that renewable energy investments are not money makers:



  4. john  

    American Tradition Institute Colorado Lawsuit, Part 1 – Pollution Issues


    Part 2: Constitutionality



  5. Ed Reid  

    BPA and the wind farm owners are at each other’s throats now over how to deal with excess wind power during periods of low demand. That problem will only get worse as the wind fraction increases. Essentially, wind is attempting to displace hydro, which makes absolutely no economic sense; and, no utility operational sense.


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  7. Alex  

    I had a few questions. First how do the current lawsuits in the northwest over wildlife protection and results in court order to close dams impact California imports and exacerbate the problem. Also I have seen and cannot locate EIA peak demand vs peak production curve for California that show a 40-45% difference or shortage of internal production. It demonstrates the complete political nature of the recent EPA ruling on just 30 states to improve emission that they consider harmful to neighboring states. It clearly benefits states that can kick their electricity and production into neighboring states


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  9. Eric Anderson  

    Sean, my thought exactly. A huge portion of the shortfall can be made up simply by redefining large hydro as renewable (which it should be anyway — if anything is).


  10. Marlo Lewis  

    Great article. I’m wondering whatever became of the California Energy Commission’s proposal, which Commissioner Boyd touted at COP XI in Montreal, to establish a “performance standard” requiring all imported electricity to be generated in facilities “at least as clean as natural gas combined cycle”? Boyd was clearly sensitive to the charge that California was engaged in eco-hypocrisy, exporting its coal and emissions to other states. I opined that the proposed standard was a non-tariff barrier that would not survive judicial review under the Commerce Clause. Boyd said his lawyers told him they could “live with it.” It’s now six years later and California is still importing coal-based power. So was the proposal not adopted? Was it adopted but as an aspirational goal or in phases? Was it adopted but ignored? Thanks for any information you’ve got on this.


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