As the second sunniest state in the U.S., California has access to a lot of sunshine. As a result, solar power is a hot commodity. This was further bolstered by the California State Legislature’s decision in 2015 to mandate that half of the state’s electricity be sourced from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, about a fourth of California’s energy comes from solar power and other alternative energy sources.
California has a surplus of solar power.
California produces more solar power than any other state, including Arizona, which is the first sunniest state. Sometimes, the production of solar power outruns the demand. When this happens, solar power companies shut down their operations until the demand matches the supply. This is called “curtailing”. In 2016, over 305,000 megawatts of solar and wind power were curtailed. This is enough power for 45,000 homes for an entire year and double the amount that was curtailed in 2015.
Other times, California paid Arizona and other states to take the excess electricity, saving the lucky recipients millions of dollars. This happens most often in milder months, such as January, February, and March when the average demand for electricity in California is much lower than it is in the hot summer months. Excess electricity has to be sold so that electricity grids don’t become overloaded and cause blackouts.
So why doesn’t California use all of its surplus solar power?
Because solar power is generated only when the sun is shining and used when it’s not, it’s still difficult to regulate supply and demand. It can be stored in the grid up to a certain point, but if conventional power sources, such as natural gas plants, are also feeding the grid with power, the grid becomes glutted.
Solar power can also be stored in batteries, but this is still a costly and inefficient option, which leaves it in the developmental stage. As a result of the lack of storage options, surpluses have to be sent somewhere. Solar power plants are the first to get shut down when there’s a surplus because they are easier and less costly to start and stop.
But solar power is still getting more and more affordable.
According to Project Sunroof, the average home in California could save up to $11,000 over a 20-year solar lease period. This is aided by the fact that solar power users can lock in a low rate while conventional power users are subject to variable utility rates and inflation. Every year, as solar technology advances, the costs get lower. According to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, solar PV panels cost 60 percent less and solar electric systems cost 50 percent less than they did in 2010.
The sunlight that reaches the earth’s surface in just 75 minutes has the capacity to power all the electricity in the world for an entire year. As technology continues to learn new ways to harness this capacity, solar power users will be positioned to reap the benefits.