California ties itself into a green knot

The governor of California recently signed a law mandating that his state get one-third of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Robert Bryce, energy-industry observer, wrote an editorial in the NY Times that looks at the numbers and sows some serious doubts as to whether the state can meet its self-imposed mandate.

For example, the state now gets by on 52 GW of electricity. If that remains unchanged, the state will need 17 GW from renewables in 9 years. Assuming solar and wind will account for almost all of that, and that the two sources will split the demand, wind and solar will each have to supply around 8.5 GW.

A state-of -the-art solar plant being built in California is designed to put out 370 MW and cover about 5.5 square miles. To get 8.5 GW using similar plants, and I doubt solar technology will change drastically over the next 9 years, the state will need to devote 129 square miles to solar plants. This translates into over 14 square miles per year of new solar plants.

Using similar logic, Bryce calculates that wind power would need over 1,800 square miles of wind turbines, or about 200 square miles of turbines per year, to supply its 8.5 GW of electricity.

I find it hard to swallow that California can get this done. The environmental impact studies alone are bound to find a species or two that live in some of those square miles. In fact, the solar project cited in the editorial is already being slowed down, if not permanently stopped, out of concern for a desert tortoise lucky enough to have earned status as an endangered species.

The new powerplants will also need new power lines, and environmentalists will likely put a stranglehold on those efforts as well. A current project to build 117-miles of power lines to carry solar and wind-generated power to San Diego from Imperial Country, a mostly desert region in the southeast corner of the state, is being delayed as eco-activists sue to stop it going through a national forest.

I wish them well and hope they succeed. But I'm afraid the only way they will meet the mandate is if a major earthquake throws most of the coast into the ocean, drastically lowering their electrical needs. Which brings up another question: What if they don't meet the mandate and break the law. Who goes to jail?

In the meantime, let's check back next year and see how they are progressing toward their goal.

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Stephen Mraz

Steve serves as Senior Editor of Machine Design.  He has 23 years of service and has a B.S. Biomedical Engineering from CWRU. Steve was a E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer in the U.S. Navy. He...
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