Letters to EcoNews: Solar & Wind

Offshore wind, National Renewable Energy Lab, flikr.

Widespread Distributed Solar on the Horizon

Greg King, Executive Director, Siskiyou Land Conservancy & Ken Miller, Director SLC

Tom Wheeler’s “Offshore Wind on the Horizon” (EcoNews September 2022) presumes that “offshore wind is necessary to combat the climate crisis,” but then he cautions that “while taking action to stop the climate crisis we don’t also contribute to the related biodiversity crisis.”  

Unfortunately, Wheeler’s discussion is limited to a few windmills in a “relatively poorly studied” ocean, skipping the massive land and sea industrialization required to install and support what could eventually be multiple wind turbines towering over 800 feet high, with blades each the length of a football field, and giant cables and ugly wires conducting electricity thousands of miles through vulnerable landscapes. Hydrogen production, which Wheeler also touts, begets even more industrialized habitat.

Imagine a completely different scenario, called Widespread Distributed Solar (WDS). With WDS, every available rooftop and parking space is outfitted with solar arrays that are networked in islandable Microgrids with storage, and connected to the grid.

WDS does not change existing land or sea uses (i.e. habitat), and produces electricity where it is used, obviating extra transmission lines. It can be installed in a matter of months, with available technology, by local workers, producing more local jobs, more revenue for the producer, more resilience in emergencies, and less ecological harm per kilowatt, than any other source. At the same time, the end-user’s energy autonomy will grow significantly.

Long-lived solar panels produce energy the way living systems do: silent electron transfer with negligible heat, no C02 production, and no need for petrochemicals. 

No amount of “scientific adaptation” can undo the second law of thermodynamics, which explains why “the climatic impacts from solar photovoltaic systems are about ten times smaller than wind systems,” according to a Harvard study. When energy is transferred from wind to turbine, some of that energy scatters, causing a desiccating turbulence in the wake and downstream of the blades, potentially affecting the local climate, including our precious fog, temperature and humidity.

Rather than model disruptive nineteenth century wind technologies, Humboldt could model intelligent distributed solar as the least impactful and most democratic energy source—the best local job creator that also incentivizes and powers the sustainable transition to electric vehicles and tools, heat pumps, and induction stoves, while adding beneficial shade to parking areas, irrigation canals, and some limited agriculture. Nation-wide, WDS could supply 40% of our electrical needs.

Meanwhile, the WDS industry is anxiously awaiting an invitation to help deploy systems throughout the County, if only they were given a chance. Perhaps our newly configured Board of Supervisors will see the light and open RCEA to the solar opportunities that other communities are exploiting. Here is where Humboldt can lead by example, irrespective of the future of offshore wind.

Solar Can’t Do It Alone: How Offshore Wind Complements Solar Energy

Tom Wheeler, Executive Director, Environmental Protection Information Center

Decarbonizing the North Coast should be thought of as a form of habitat protection, as reducing greenhouse gas emissions contributes to global efforts to minimize the impact of climate change. Climate change is already impacting our North Coast environment. Coastal fog is in decline and with it the range of coast redwoods is expected to narrow and migrate north. Ocean acidification, caused by increased absorption of CO2 in our oceans, is already damaging marine ecosystems. Wildfires have already become more frequent and severe. Stream temperatures, already dangerously warm, are expected to increase, placing cold-water species, including our local salmon runs, at risk. You get the gist. We bear a responsibility to take local action to address this global problem.

Decarbonizing the North Coast is going to require clean, renewable electricity—and a lot of it. California’s climate goals are projected to increase electricity consumption by as much as 68 percent by 2045. Solar is going to be a workhorse in supplying that electricity but it can’t do it alone. To replace fossil fuels, we need a combination of technologies to create both a reliable and predictable supply of energy. 

Matching electricity supply and demand, something called “grid balancing,” is challenging. For example, this year on May 8 around 3pm, California produced enough renewable electricity to meet 103 percent of statewide demand—a first in our state’s history. The bulk of this renewable energy came from solar. (Let’s pause briefly to celebrate this historic achievement.) 

Yet, although we had enough renewables to power all statewide demand, fossil fuel power plants, like the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, were still humming. While solar peaked, we still were releasing 931 metric tons of CO2 per hour from burning methane. Why? 

Because, by 8pm, the sun was nearly down and solar production had fallen off, yet electricity demand was still increasing (and would peak at approximately 8:30pm). To match supply with demand, methane power plants had to pick up when solar dropped off and ramping up production at fossil fuel plants takes a long time. Without something to replace solar, not only did we have to burn fossil fuels that evening but we also had to keep plants running throughout the day so that they were ready to take over from solar.

How can we shutter the Humboldt Bay Generating Station and other fossil fuel power plants across the state? Floating offshore wind can help. Wind energy naturally complements solar. Modeled power production from offshore wind predicts peak production in the evening, closer to the daily peak demand. Offshore wind has enormous power potential. The Humboldt Wind Energy Area has the potential for 1.6 gigawatts of power, enough for 560,000 homes. 

Even solar and wind together won’t be enough. To better integrate “variable” sources of power into the grid like wind and solar — so-called because their production varies according to conditions (unlike “baseload” generators, like nuclear or methane, which are capable of providing sustained and easily planned-for generation)—we also will need other infrastructure improvements.

Grid infrastructure improvements are necessary to add flexibility into our system, allowing different grid regions to “share” power between each other. (Think: it might be sunny in Redding but cloudy on the coast.) Currently Humboldt County’s transmission infrastructure is old and out-dated. We lack sufficient connections to share power, requiring substantial in-county production of electricity (and more methane burned at the Humboldt Bay Generating Station). With improved connections, Humboldt would be better able to rely on electricity generated elsewhere when conditions are subprime locally and we can share our excess power when we have it. Sharing excess renewable energy generated by offshore wind turbines would allow Humboldt to play an active role in decarbonizing the rest of the State by accelerating its transition away from fossil fuels. This, of course, benefits us here in Humboldt County because every ton of CO2 generated anywhere on the planet increases the catastrophic risks of climate change.

Energy storage also has to be part of the solution. Our region has led the way in battery storage, with large battery storage projects already online at the airport and at the Blue Lake Rancheria. More energy storage projects are also planned, including a large battery array on the Samoa Peninsula. Stored energy can come in a number of different forms, from batteries to pumped hydro to green hydrogen, each with their own environmental costs and practical challenges. Stored energy can smooth spikes in electricity production and provide coverage for gaps, say when solar starts to drop off but if the wind hasn’t reached its production potential yet. Energy storage, while important, also has its limitations. It stretches the imagination how stored solar alone could meet the existing demand or further enhanced demands. (Plus there’s the problem of cost, with distributed solar—without any storage—already about double the cost per MWh than is projected for floating offshore wind. Add in storage and you’ll double the price again.)

Managing our demand will also be necessary to reach 100 percent renewable energy. You may already be enrolled in a plan that gives preferential pricing to electricity when it is not in high demand. Reducing our energy usage from 4-9pm, when solar drops off and we have a sudden need for power, is particularly helpful in smoothing demand curves. Improvements to our homes can reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool them and modern appliances can be automatically set to use electricity at times when the grid is powered by renewables. And walking, biking, rolling or riding the bus instead of driving reduces the amount of electricity we will need as we transition to a fully electrified vehicle fleet.

100 percent renewable energy is both necessary to avert a climate disaster and achievable. We need to use all the tools in the clean energy toolbox to maximize our chances of success. Floating offshore wind could be our region’s biggest clean energy source. We have an environmental duty to explore this possibility to see if it will work for Humboldt.