Taking Back California – Part Four: Abundant Energy

When it comes to the essentials of civilization, energy is at the top. It is the prerequisite for every other basic essential, from pumping and heating water to powering farm equipment to keeping the lights on. And in California, the state government has declared war on practical, affordable energy. People can’t afford to live here anymore.

The primary cause of the high cost of living in California is out-of-control environmentalism. The two foundations of affordability in California are energy and water, and the institutional and legislative consensus in California is to cram down and ration both of those essentials. But there is a counterargument that is gathering momentum. It represents a tremendous opening for California’s Republican candidates and it can’t come a moment too soon.

Possibly the most powerful and unifying political opportunity in California today is to promote policies that will restore abundance and reject policies that involve rationing. Contrary to the Malthusian dogma that prevails in Sacramento, abundant and affordable energy and water is feasible and sustainable. It is the foundation of middle-class prosperity and upward mobility for everyone. California’s natural resources, innovative culture and wealth ought to make this easy.

In some of his press conferences starting in 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom actually embraced the theme of abundance. It’s helpful that Newsom is talking about this not because he intends to do much about it but because it popularizes the concept. It also gives us an opportunity to expose Democrats who talk about abundance but don’t do anything that would be a logical policy consequence of the abundance theme.

Californians have everything they need to have abundant water and energy. The state is blessed with both financial and natural resource wealth. California has ample reserves of oil and natural gas. The state also has untapped hydroelectric potential that could take the form of additional off-stream reservoirs that can utilize pump storage to absorb surplus electricity.

The Case for Electrification

When advocating for abundant energy, it’s accurate to be appalled at the precipitous rush towards renewables before they’re anywhere close to practical and cost-effective. But understanding that we need to be more realistic about how fast renewables can be introduced should not blind us to the case for electrification. An effective argument for abundant energy needs to embrace an all-of-the-above strategy. To dismiss entirely the move towards electrification is an overreaction.

The pie chart below illustrates the argument for electrifying California.  The fact is that right now, Californians—along with most everyone else in the world—use energy very inefficiently. Two-thirds of the energy input going into California’s grid in the form of inputs to create electricity, fuel for transportation and fuel for heating and lighting our homes is wasted as friction, heat or transmission losses.

When you electrify an economy, you can actually bring that level of conversion efficiency up to about 80 percent. You can go from 65 percent wasted, which according to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the Energy Information Administration is how much is wasted in California, to only 20 or 25 percent wasted energy. That’s based on basic physics, based on the fact that electricity can be transmitted, stored, and turned into heat, cooling, or traction far more efficiently than devices that rely on combustion. This has to be acknowledged.

But in the here and now, Californians must recognize the consequences of trying to electrify too fast. During 2022, Californians only generated 22 gigawatts on average in the state. They had to import another 10 gigawatts from generating plants in other states, primarily Washington, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. To transition to an all-electric economy, Californians would have to generate approximately five times as much electricity as they did in 2022. This objective is made more difficult by the fact that 50 percent of California’s in-state electricity generation comes from natural gas, as shown on the next pie chart.

The only categories approved by environmentalists today in California are solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and so-called small hydro—if you have a hydroelectric plant that produces more than 30 megawatts, it does not count as renewable energy. Of these approved categories, geothermal likely can’t be significantly expanded; biomass is also problematic and probably can’t be scaled very much; nor can small hydro. That means under the current plan, Californians are going to have to get this additional electricity almost exclusively from solar and wind.

This means that to accomplish California’s net zero goals, wherever you see a solar farm, imagine 20 of them, and wherever you see a wind farm, imagine 20 more. That’s what it’s going to take; that’s what they’re trying to do, and that’s crazy.

To offer just one example of how crazy it is to try to increase California’s solar and wind generating capacity by a factor of twenty, consider what it will take to get energy from offshore wind. Keep in mind this would mean expanding in-state generation of renewables to roughly 100 gigawatts, because that’s a best case number in order to completely replace oil and gas in California.

The federal government just leased more than 500 square miles of ocean off the coast of Humboldt and San Luis Obispo counties for offshore wind in order to build offshore wind farms that are intended to generate 4.5 gigawatts. That’s not moving the renewables transition very far, but even 4.5 gigawatts is overstating the contribution these wind farms are going to make. You have to look at the actual yield from these turbines because the wind doesn’t blow all the time. In reality, these offshore wind farms—if they’re ever built—are only going to actually deliver a baseload power equivalent of 1.8 gigawatts. That isn’t even two percent of what Californians are going to need if they hope to achieve their goal of electrifying their transportation and residential sectors.

Consider the engineering of these turbines. At a minimum, a wind farm with a 4.5 gigawatt capacity will need 450 turbines because the biggest ones only have a capacity of 10 megawatts each. To produce that amount of electricity, each one of these things has to be a thousand feet tall from the waterline to the tip of the rotor blade when extended vertically. Each of these units is expected to float in place while anchored with mooring cables to the sea floor, which, once you are a few miles away from the California coast, is almost a mile down, and each one of them will also require a high-voltage cable dangling to the ocean floor, where it must then traverse its way 20 miles to onshore transmission lines.

Think about the impact to sea life caused by 450 of these leviathans, the navigation hazard; think about the ports, the ships, the submersibles, the divers, and the construction crews. And how would you build housing for all these workers to build and maintain this stuff when California has a Coastal Commission that shoots down almost every major construction proposal anywhere near the California coast.

To fully appreciate just how big these wind turbines will be, recall the Statue of Liberty, which is about 300 feet tall from the water line to the tip of the torch. This gargantuan statue and its base towers over the ocean and is visible for miles. By comparison, a 10-megawatt wind turbine is nearly 1,000 feet tall, three times taller than the Statue of Liberty.

To reiterate: these turbines that they want to anchor in the ocean floating in water a mile deep are absolutely gigantic. The length from the base of the floating section below the water line to the tip of the blades is longer than that of a modern American supercarrier. They’re that big, and you’d have to float and maintain 450 of these merely to get Californians two percent of the way to the electrification they’re going to need if they fully electrify their economy. It’s crazy.

The Practical Path to Abundant Energy

There are alternatives. And once you point out the futile insanity of pursuing a strategy that calls for total electrification primarily through the installation of more wind farms and solar farms, voters will be ready to listen. To return to abundant and affordable energy in California, here are some solutions to consider:

Advanced hybrid vehicles can use variations of combustible carbon-neutral fuels that are being developed. For example, these fuels can be synthesized by electrolyzing hydrogen and combining that with carbon dioxide waste streams taken from flue gas to synthesize liquid hydrocarbons that are completely carbon neutral.

More practical already is the possibility of producing advanced hybrids that make extremely efficient use of gasoline or natural gas to fuel combustion engines in tandem with much smaller, less resource-intensive batteries powering electric motors. These vehicles would generate almost no pollution and can operate in an all-electric mode on dense urban streets, but retain the extraordinary range and rapid refueling capacity using existing infrastructure when used on longer trips.

So why are Sacramento’s visionaries limiting their automotive future to pure EVs when nobody has the slightest idea where the technology is going with advanced hybrids? Californians can be inspired to embrace their heritage of innovation and not lock out entire categories of technology.

Californians also need to take the natural gas power plants which Sacramento politicians are systematically shutting down and instead retrofit them so they can more efficiently harvest more of the waste heat. This is called combined cycle power generation, where you have a natural gas power plant with a gas turbine that turns a generator, and then the exhaust heat is harvested to heat water that turns into steam to drive a second turbine. Modern designs are already able to get more than 60 percent of the natural gas energy that’s going into a power plant back out in the form of electricity. There are new combined cycle technologies that promise to increase that efficiency to more than 80 percent by replacing steam with compounds that can harvest heat from the first turbine at much higher temperatures.

Why aren’t these innovations being pursued in California, of all places? And if California’s politicians are serious about climate change and if they’re serious about electrifying the economy, why not start running California’s natural gas power plants at 100 percent of their capacity, which is what they were designed for? As it is, California’s natural gas power plants only operated at 28 percent of their capacity in 2022. Why not sequester their CO2 emissions underground, or harvest the CO2 for synfuel, and run them all the time? Just that one step would more than double California’s in-state electricity generating capacity and would cost billions to implement instead of the hundreds of billions that would be required to accomplish the same objective using wind and solar.

To make power plants using combustion more palatable to Californians who worry about greenhouse gases, California’s power utilities can also change the fuel mix, replacing or partially replacing the natural gas with so-called green hydrogen or carbon-neutral methane. For anyone concerned about CO2 emissions, through a combination of CO2 sequestration or harvesting, advanced retrofits can raise the conversion efficiency up to as high as 80 percent, and by using a mix of natural gas and carbon neutral fuel inputs, emissions from these modified electricity-generating plants can be reduced to amounts that are insignificant, if not completely eliminated.

If the politicians running California explored all new technologies, including innovative solutions that still permit clean and ultra-efficient combustible fuel for electricity generation and transportation, nuclear power, hydroelectric power, including pump storage, along with solar, geothermal, and biomass, working families and businesses there would again have access to abundant and affordable energy. Taxpayers and ratepayers would not need to spend hundreds of billions to subsidize offshore wind, nor would they have to support expensive extremes to deploy utility-scale battery storage. These are practical ways to achieve energy abundance, and it could rely primarily on private investment. These solutions would also cause less disruption to the environment, both in California and around the world.

In an era of $6.00 per gallon gasoline and $0.40 per kilowatt-hour electricity, this is a winning message that California’s voters are desperate to hear.


Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: default

Start the discussion at community.amgreatness.com