California, Texas Hit New Records for Renewables on the Grid
Photo-illustration: Randi Klett; Photo: Getty Images

California Independent System Operator (Cal ISO) announced in March that the state hit a record of 3926 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar energy on its system. The next day, it broke its own record with just over 4 gigawatts of solar power generation.

Now, that record has been broken again. Cal ISO recorded 4767 MW of utility-scale solar on June 1. And it’s not just one-off days that are seeing substantial growth in renewable energy on California’s grid.

During May 2014, solar made up 6 percent of Cal ISO’s total electric load for the month, three times the amount from one year earlier. During peak hours, solar was providing about 14 percent of total power in May of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). California added 2145 MW of utility-scale solar in 2013.

California is not the only state setting records with renewables. Texas recorded a new peak wind output of 10,296 MW on March 26, according to EIA. The new record was nearly 30 percent of the total electric load on Texas’s grid, which is run by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). The record outstripped two other peaks that came just one week prior.

The current record will likely be surpassed again soon. Texas has more than 12 gigawatts of operational utility-scale wind capacity and has recently completed a major transmission project that allows the wind to be moved across the state to load pockets where it is needed.

The more than 5630 kilometers (3500 miles) of new transmission expansions have allowed for fewer wind curtailments in Texas, according to EIA. In 2012, hourly curtailments regularly went above 1000 megawatts, but that level of curtailment has steadily dropped in the latter half of 2013 and into 2014 as the transmission corridors were completed.

The new peaks in Texas and California come on top of a record year for renewables in 2013. Overall, the U.S. solar market grew 41 percent in 2013, with California installing more than half of that capacity. More than 60,000 MW of wind was added in 2013, according to the American Wind Energy Association, slightly edging out 2012 to make it the best year ever for wind in the US.

There is substantial room for growth for renewables in 2014 in California. The EIA noted that the utilities are less than two-thirds of the way to meeting their renewable portfolio standard of 33 percent by 2020. There is expected to be another 1728 MW of utility-scale solar in the latter half of 2014.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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