California can rely on clean energy and batteries for this summer’s peak electricity demand

California is preparing for another record-breaking summer, with temperatures expected to exceed last year as the planet’s hottest in recorded history. Fortunately, the Golden State is not expecting dangerous rolling blackouts like it did in previous years from the increased strain on the electricity grid to cool homes and workplaces. According to a new analysis by the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), the entity that oversees 80% of the state’s electricity flow, the state will enjoy a “surplus” of power even during the hottest months.

The projected surplus is welcomed news for dozens of clean energy and environmental justice organizations calling on Governor Newsom to shut down the state’s oldest and most polluting power plants. The plants in question are called once-through-cooling (“OTC”) because they use ocean water to cool steam for generating electricity. The state plans to spend $1.2 billion to extend contracts for three gas-powered OTC plants to keep the lights on during peak power demand this summer. Advocates opposing the plants argue that they disproportionately impact low-income communities of color, are not reliable, and were already slated for retirement in December 2023.

According to a research brief by PSE Healthy Energy, 84% of California’s gas “peaker” plants (like the OTC) are located in disadvantaged communities, having a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations. Health impacts from living near a power plant include a higher risk of asthma attacks and heart attacks, increased emergency hospital visits, and preterm births. Burning natural gas emits nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to ozone and particulate pollution. According to a new report by the American Lung Association, California is home to the majority of the most polluted ozone and particulate cities in the country – with the majority population of those cities being Latinos and other people of color. 

One likely explanation for California’s projected power surplus is the growth of clean energy and battery storage. In April, Governor Newsom announced that the state has increased its battery storage capacity over tenfold in five years, and earlier this year the state broke records for meeting nearly 100% of its electricity demand with solar and wind energy on consecutive days. Unlike gas peaker plants, which can take days to ramp up (minimizing their impact during a power outage), battery storage can be deployed immediately onto the grid. 

Likewise, rooftop solar, home batteries, and other technologies like smart thermostats that can reduce energy consumption during peak energy demand are often referred to as virtual power plants, or VPP’s. VPP’s combine the power of hundreds or thousands of small-scale solar and battery systems to mimic traditional power plants. A new report estimates that VPPs could create consumer savings of $550 million per year in California, and California’s VPP potential will exceed 15% of peak demand (5 times the existing capability) by 2035.

With the growth of clean energy and battery storage solutions, advocates are calling for a shift in spending from polluting OTC plants to programs benefiting California’s environmental justice communities, including Equitable Building Decarbonization, Transformative Climate Communities, Community Resilience Centers, and Community Renewable Energy and Storage.

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