Solar Power Generation Could Exceed California's Demand Up to 5 Times
Rebecca R. Hernandez

Solar energy could exceed California's current energy demand three to five times using equipment built on and around the state's existing infrastructure, claim researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science at in Stanford, Calif. They detailed their findings online March 16 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

With a total area of more than 400,000 square kilometers, California has more land than 189 countries, including Germany. A little more than 8 percent of this land has already been developed by humans. The Stanford scientists explored how much opportunity this developed land presented for power generation via photovoltaic solar power and concentrating solar power. Photovoltaics convert light directly into electricity, whereas concentrating solar power typically uses concentrated sunlight to heat fluid that drives a steam turbine to generate electricity.

In all, the researchers discovered that California has more than 27,286 square kilometers of developed land suitable for photovoltaics and more than 6,274 square kilometers of developed land usable for concentrating solar power. The rooftops and open spaces in these urban and suburban areas could generate up to 15,000 terawatt-hours of energy per year using photovoltaics and 6,000 terawatt-hours of energy per year using concentrating solar power technology, which is three to five times more than California's current energy demands.

The scientists also found an additional 55,733 square kilometers of land potentially compatible for photovoltaics and 27,215 square kilometers potentially compatible for concentrating solar power. These areas are neither ecologically sensitive nor federally protected, and could in principle be developed with minimal environmental impact, generating roughly three times as much energy as the developed sites the research team explored.

California is currently working to meet requirements that 33 percent of retail electricity be provided by renewable sources by 2020 and that greenhouse-gas emissions are 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The researchers suggest their findings might help the state reach these goals, and noted their work could apply to the rest of the country as well, with a 2008 National Renewable Energy Laboratory report suggesting that 20 to 27 percent of all U.S. residential rooftop space and 60 to 65 percent of commercial rooftops could host photovoltaics.

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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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