Commentary: California resource planning needs to step up to the challenge of decarbonizing the grid

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San Francisco, California, home to the headquarters of the state's Public Utilities Commission.

Ed Smeloff is the senior director of grid integration for Vote Solar.

Across California, electric utilities and community choice aggregators (CCAs) are required to plan far in advance to acquire the resources they will need to provide clean, affordable, reliable energy for our homes and businesses. In most states, the planning is carried out by the electric utility and then reviewed by the public and eventually adopted by the state energy regulator. In this traditional approach to resource planning, each utility is then responsible for implementing its own plan with only incidental impact from the plans of neighboring utilities.

But California does resource planning differently. Thanks in large part to the commitment to reach 100% clean energy by 2045, California needs to plan for statewide electricity resources holistically with the California Public Utilities Commission taking the lead in putting together a state Integrated Resource Plan. The California planning process takes two years with the first step being the adoption of a Reference System Portfolio, which should be adopted no later than this March.

California’s Reference System Portfolio creates a framework for the many individual resource procurement plans that the utilities and CCAs across the state submits later in the planning process. The individual plans are then melded together into a Preferred System Portfolio, which ensures that, in total, we do not exceed our greenhouse gas pollution limits and that our collective energy package is reliable and affordable. 

If the Reference System Portfolio is inadequate, we will not meet our long-term goal of decarbonizing the electric system and the economy in California. There are plenty of examples of how this failure can have a direct, negative impact on our communities. Because of poor past planning we will be forced to continue to operate several antiquated, polluting fossil fuel plants along the California coast beyond their planned closure date at the end of this year. In addition to directly impacting our climate commitments, these inefficient power plants are a nuisance and environmental burden for local communities who continue to demand their closure and decommissioning. 

The failure to bring new clean resources on-line in a timely manner could repeat itself if the new Reference System Portfolio does not rapidly accelerate our development of clean new resources in advance of the dates that major plants need to be decommissioned. The Diablo Canyon nuclear facility is currently scheduled to go offline by 2025. New procurement of solar coupled with storage systems is needed to assure that reliable replacement capacity is in place well in advance of the planned retirement. Tens of thousands of megawatts of paired solar and storage are shovel-ready and waiting for contracts to start construction. Delaying power plant retirements as a result of poor resource planning cannot be tolerated by the public that strongly supported legislation to move beyond fossil fuels.

To ensure that California stays on track with its climate commitments, and its promises to communities to close existing, dirty fossil generation, the 2019-2020 Reference System Portfolio must adopt an aggressive 30 million metric ton greenhouse gas emission reduction target for California’s electric sector, which would drive the development of new solar and storage that is needed to meet new and existing energy demand. If effectively implemented, California’s comprehensive integrated resource plan will result in the state’s many electricity providers procuring new clean resources that will allow for the planned closures of existing fossil fuel power plants, and facilitate the transition to a clean energy future.

Ed Smeloff is the senior director of grid integration at Vote Solar, a California-based nonprofit that works to expand access to solar energy.

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