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The renewables sweepstakes

Our two most populous states are in an unofficial race to lead the U.S. in electricity generation using renewables. Both Texas and California have excellent potential for renewables. However, there are substantial differences in their approaches. Their successes and setbacks could provide useful lessons that should be applied nationally.

In 2022, Texas led the U.S. with almost 130,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of installed wind capacity followed by California at 23,000 GWh. California led in solar with almost 59,000 GWh of installed capacity followed by Texas with about 23,000 GWh. 

Both states are rapidly adding wind and solar capacity plus utility-scale battery storage to store renewable electricity to match electricity supply and demand and to stabilize the electric grid.

California emphasizes regulations and has established a number of bold objectives for renewable energy such as reaching net zero — meaning no net carbon dioxide emissions in the state — by 2045. This will eliminate most uses of fossil fuels after that date. California has banned the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines starting in 2035.

Texas depends more on the market, pursuing actions that promote the expansion of wind and solar energy production. Texas is now the country’s largest deregulated market for electricity. Providers have to compete for customers’ business. This competition has given providers an incentive to use the lowest cost sources of electricity to meet demand, increasingly from renewables. The declining cost of electricity from wind and solar is due to improving technology and economies of scale. Texas’ average electricity cost is 14.3 cents per kilowatt hour (¢/kWh), slightly below the national average.

Texas may be in a better position to expand and manage its electric grid. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the state’s electric grid that covers about 90 percent of the state’s customers. ERCOT made a major farsighted investment in critical infrastructure about 15 years ago to build transmission lines connecting West Texas with the more populated eastern and central parts of the state. This $7 billion project was completed in 2013. It gave renewable energy producers in Texas access to the state’s largest electricity markets. The private sector did the rest with growing investments in solar and wind farms and electricity storage facilities.

In California, the Public Utilities Commission approves electricity rates. California’s average cost of electricity is much higher than the national average at 24.5 ¢/kWh. This high and rising cost of electricity in California works against the greater use of electricity from renewables for transportation, home heating and other uses being mandated by the state. California wants consumers to voluntarily switch from natural gas to electricity for heating and other energy uses. For this to happen, the state will have to do something about California’s very high and rising cost of electricity.

Unlike Texas, California does not have one entity managing the state’s electric grid, a critical piece of infrastructure needed to meet the state’s renewable energy goals. To reach net zero, the state has to more than double its production of electricity and produce all this electricity using renewables, solar and wind, by 2045. The sunny and windy areas best suited for renewable energy production need to be connected with urban areas in the state where most of the energy is consumed. This requires a doubling or tripling of transmission networks. The capacity of local distribution systems also needs to be increased substantially as more electric vehicles are charged at home, as electric heat pumps replace gas furnaces and other energy uses are converted to electricity.

Bold initiatives are meaningless if they are not implemented successfully, on schedule and within the budget. California recently asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow the state to continue operating the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant beyond its planned shutdown by 2025. The state had over six years to put in place the renewable energy needed to replace the 8 percent of the state’s electricity produced by this plant. The California bullet train is a huge green energy project that is way behind schedule and over budget and may never be completed.

Of concern is Texas considering a reduction of incentives for renewable energy in favor of the greater use of natural gas. There shouldn’t be a competition of renewables versus fossil fuels. We will need to invest in both for a long time. We should also be responding to economics and the environmental factors increasingly favoring greater use of renewables.

It is technically feasible for renewables, solar and wind, to provide all the energy the U.S. needs. However, there are a lot of practical problems that have to be solved, such as expanding up front state and national transmission networks, taking actions to keep electricity prices low, the intelligent siting of renewable energy projects to avoid public opposition, and maintaining fossil fuel production until reliable renewable energy is available to replace it.

It can be done. Will we do it?

William Fletcher is a mechanical engineer and former senior vice president at Rockwell International. He served as an officer and engineer in the Navy working on the design and operation of nuclear-powered ships, and he was an engineer involved with the design and construction of commercial nuclear power plants. Later, he focused on industrial development and automation. His international experience includes several overseas assignments including an assignment in Saudi Arabia planning the large Jubail industrial development project.

Craig B. Smith, Ph.D., is an engineer and former faculty member at UCLA. During his career he was responsible for planning large energy conservation programs for utilities, schools, corporations and the City of Los Angeles. He is the former president and chairman of the international architect/engineering company DMJM+HN. He is the author of several books on energy efficiency and management.

Fletcher and Smith are co-authors of “Reaching Net Zero: What it takes to solve the global climate crisis.”

Tags Climate change Energy Fossil fuels Global warming Natural gas Renewable energy solar wind

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