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California should ignore the naysayers, and dive into wind and solar as they aim for 100% clean energy

California recently put forth a resolution to consider 100% renewable electricity by 2045, paving the way for solar and wind to spread their wings as the main electricity sources in a state on the frontier of renewable energy. But Julian Specter at Greentech Media argues the choice to forego other market choices in California, to focus solely on wind and solar as electricity sources, is a bad strategy to achieve lower climate warming emissions.

I think that logic put forth by GTM is wrong. California needs to aggressively chase this path toward 100% renewable for the following reasons: one, the state is only one market among many; two, prior examples of ultra-focused groups ‘over investing’ in a technology have brought about amazing change;  three, wind and solar technology can get it done; and, finally, legislative paths can change if need be.

California can go it alone and focus on these high probabilities of victory technologies without hurting the rest of us. In fact, it probably needs to so the rest of us can benefit from their advancements.

The arguments put forth at GTM have real validity. Philosophically, ceding the choice of anything to the state legislature versus the market seems unsavory, if not flawed. What is the knowledge of a legislative body compared to the unforgiving nature of a mass market? Specter also argues that technologically, solar+wind+batteries might not be a practical solution to move us along the path to lower emissions. There’s some merit there as we’d need to use two full years of global solar panel production to equal California’s electricity usage. And that, of course, is before we consider storage. Aactually though, this second argument of which technology is an extension of the first argument applied to the potential technologies we have at hand.

The idea that California is violating free market ideology assumes California is the only market. But California is a market, not the market. It is one market among many markets in the U.S. alone, and of course the U.S. itself is a member of the broader world market. Places like Texas, China and Russia do as they please. Technology wise, nuclear and gas still have their opportunities to do their work globally – to compete in the market. These energy sources have been installing volume while individual markets like California, Germany, Massachusetts and Hawaii are choosing winners with incentives for solar+wind. There is a lot of money, a lot of researchers and a lot of markets to test and deploy various technologies.

Of course, we need to acknowledge that California is a large market – the state represents 0.5% of the world’s population – and 3.3% of the world’s GDP. The state must be respectful of its gravity.

Average German Household Electricity Price 2006-2017

Instead of actually being a market, maybe we should look at California as an individual actor in the world.

The greatest argument for an actor like California to laser focus on strategic technologies could best be described by imagining the results of ongoing solar investment by Germany (see light blue in above chart) and China in recent years. Those investments yielded installation growth driving precipitous price drops across all layers of the installation process, ending up with exponential global uptake far away from just Germany and China. 

China saw an opportunity to seize a strategic long-term market and drop the price. One day, after we’re done taxing them for it, we might want to pat them on the back for giving so much of the People’s treasury to R&D for the planet. Many other companies, countries, cities and regions (all actors – not markets) are doing similar work – the U.S. has led in research from day one, California every day pushes, broader Europe has invested greatly, Australia is experimenting, Hawaii and Massachusetts are signing laws today that will drive business and innovation tomorrow. The Manhattan Project and Human Genome Project, along with modern investment miracles like the Department of Energy’s Sunshot program, show that hyper-focused programs can create great outcomes.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

–Margaret Mead

In reality, if it wasn’t for these groups and their overly-obsessed on their work selves, we – the global population – would progress at speeds far too slow to meet our needs for a stable climate.

Downward pricing trends in solar power from 2009-2016

The philosophy or politics of the argument mean nothing if the technology simply cannot meet the goals. The number one reason why solar and wind will have a challenge scaling is that energy storage has not yet scaled sufficiently.

It does however sound a lot like the argument I heard about solar power in 2008 – solar power has since scaled like an animal, and now has a problem of there being too much solar power. There happen to be a couple of people wanting to scale batteries and there is a logic to expect significant price drops in energy storage. The sheer volume of energy storage needed is daunting – industries that are tiny specks in the eye of global markets are going to be required to scale into the billion of dollars a year in revenue. Pressures on commodity markets will become extreme where they never existed before – check out the price of cobalt and hedge fund cornering. But we’ve done this scaling game before – and right now, we’ve got a lot of evidence that growth is going to be aggressive. If California is greatly focused and the people are willing to commit their treasury – then we will scale to meet California’s need first.

Political reality might be the argument that matters the most in the end. The people of California are fairly strong in their opinions on the topic. That they’ve allowed nuclear power plants to close, have invested so much cold hard cash in solar and wind for so many decades, and have shown up at the ballot box to vote for politicians that support these views – means there’s little chance these folks are changing course. In their mind, California needs to lead this game because the state is the type to lead a game like this – it’s why many move there in the first place.

And, if carbon capture or GenIV nuclear or whatever technology happens to grow into themselves as a smart complement to massive build outs of solar and wind or, better yet, if these other technologies become the one to rule us all, then California can pivot.  Just like anyone else. And since it happens to be politically awake, the state will pivot before most others. That Californians are willing to invest when we have such complexity in our discussions of climate change mean we as a global species need take advantage of this wild animal as one member in our global market for as long as we can.

The key argument here is whether California over focusing can stunt the growth of the world’s climate actions by forcing solutions on the market via legislation – and this isn’t the case.

We have to have these varied ideas being attacked aggressively by many parties from many angles. We are beyond passive moves forward waiting for a patient market to slowly and most efficiently move, we’ve burnt that oil and coal a decade or more ago. It might be apt to call California a solar power and wind genius in our global tribe of energy producers – and we need them to stay there, pushing from the forefront doing their west coast thing.

Main Image Credit – Sen. Leader Kevin de León promotes state funding of solar panels for homes of lower-income families (Carl Costas, CALmatters)

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