California secretly struggles with renewables

Published January 19, 2021

California has hooked up a grid battery system that is almost ten times bigger than the previous world record holder, but when it comes to making renewables reliable it is so small it might as well not exist.

The new battery array is rated at a storage capacity of 1,200 megawatt hours (MWh); easily eclipsing the record holding 129 MWh Australian system built by Tesla a few years ago. However, California peaks at a whopping 42,000 MW. If that happened on a hot, low wind night this supposedly big battery would keep the lights on for just 1.7 minutes (that’s 103 seconds). This is truly a trivial amount of storage.

Mind you this system is being built to serve just Pacific Gas & Electric. But they by coincidence peak at about half of California, or 21,000 MWh, so they get a magnificent 206 seconds of peak juice. Barely time to find the flashlight, right?

There is no word on what this trivial giant cost, since PG&E does not own it. That honor goes to an outfit called Vistra that does a lot of different things with electricity and gas. But these complex battery systems are not cheap.

This one reportedly utilizes more than 4,500 stacked battery racks, each of which contains 22 individual battery modules. That is 99,000 separate modules that have to be made to work well together. Imagine hooking up 99,000 electric cars and you begin to get the picture.

The US Energy Information Administration reports that grid scale battery systems have averaged around $1.5 million a MWh over the last few years. At that price this trivial piece of storage cost just under TWO BILLION DOLLARS. At 103 seconds of peak storage that is about $18,000,000 a second. Money for nothing.

Mind you the PG&E engineers are not that stupid. They know perfectly well that this billion dollar battery is not there to provide backup power when wind and solar do not produce. In fact the truth is just the opposite. The battery’s job is to prevent wind and solar power from crashing the grid when they do produce.

It is called grid stabilization. Wind and solar are so erratic that it is very hard to maintain the constant 60 cycle AC frequency that all our wonderful electronic devices require. If the frequency gets more than just a tiny bit off the grid blacks out. Preventing these crashes requires active stabilization.

Grid instability due to erratic wind and solar used to not be a problem, because the huge spinning metal rotors in the coal, gas and nuclear power plant generators simply absorbed the fluctuations. But most of those plants have been shut down, so we need billion dollar batteries to do what those plants did for free. Nor is this monster battery the only one being built in California to try to make wind and solar power work. Many more are in the pipeline and not just in California. Many states are struggling with instability as baseline generators are switched off.

There is even an insane irony here, one that is perfect for Crazy California. This billion dollar battery occupies the old generator room of a shut down gas fired power plant. Those generators used to make the grid stable. Now we are struggling to do it.

Of course no one at PG&E or Vistra says publicly that this monster battery is there to keep renewables from trashing the grid, not to back them up. One wonders if the California Public Utilities Commission knows this? The big question is why is the rate paying public not told? Or the press? There is really a very expensive hoax here.

While on this topic, let’s ask what it would actually cost to back up wind and solar with batteries. This depends a lot on local climate. How often the wind does not blow hard for example. Wind generators need about 10 mph just to start and more like a sustained 30 mph for full power.

Multi-day heat waves are often periods of very low wind, combined with a maximum need for power. A nasty combination. So my rough rule of thumb is that you need storage of 7 days times peak need.

California peaks at 42,000 MWh and 7 days is 168 hours so using this rough rule we would need about 7 million MWh of batteries. This makes 1200 MWh truly trivial. Then at $1.5 million a MWh we get an astounding 10.5 TRILLION DOLLARS, just for the batteries to make renewables reliable.

The scam is breathtaking, and not just in California. Nationwide we are spending untold billions of dollars trying to keep the erratic nature of renewables from crashing the electric power system. But these efforts are routinely portrayed as storage for when renewables do not run. Stabilization is the opposite of storage. We are being lied to about renewables.

[Originally posted on Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT)]