Can California really be carbon-free by 2045?

Solar panels on the roof of the Los Angeles Convention Center. Image: Getty.

California governor Jerry Brown recently signed a new law mandating that the electricity the state consumes not cause carbon emissions by 2045.

He also issued an executive order that goes even further: it commits California to “achieve carbon neutrality” across the board and not just for power generation by 2045. Together, these steps codify California’s ongoing transition away from relying on fossil fuels for energy. This effort has been ramping up since 2011, when Brown signed another law committing the state to deriving a third of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020 – not including big hydroelectric dams.

Based on more than 30 years of research related to solar energy, by my assessment, California can meet the law’s ambitious goal as long as it continues to implement programs that encourage the rapid expansion of renewable energy in the state.

A growth industry

The new law actually sets multiple targets rather than just one. It commits California to draw half its electricity from renewable sources by 2026, a share that would rise to 60 per cent by 2030.

To take the next step, rather than mandating that all power be renewably sourced, state lawmakers established a 100 per cent “zero-carbon” goal. They did not define this term, but it is understood as including wind and solar power, big hydropower plants and other sources of electricity that do not generate carbon dioxide.

Utility-scale solar and wind electricity increased from 3 per cent in 2010 to 18 per cent in 2017 in California, exceeding prior state targets, largely because solar prices have dropped sharply in recent years.

Being open to a wide range of technologies makes meeting the 2045 target easier and allowed State Senator Kevin de Leon, the original bill’s author, to amass broad support for the bill.

Where things stood in 2017

About 56 per cent of the power California generated in 2017 came from sources that don’t emit carbon. That puts it more than halfway toward this new goal by 2045.

However, the Diablo Canyon plant, California’s last nuclear power station, is slated for decommissioning by 2025, and no other reactors are in the works. This closure would eliminate the 8.7 per cent of the state’s carbon-free power that came from nuclear energy.

Nearly all of the remaining 44 per cent of the state’s electricity is currently generated by burning natural gas, and virtually none comes from coal. Going completely zero-carbon would require phasing out the state’s natural gas power plants.

On top of wind and solar energy, other generation options include geothermal, small nuclear reactors and carbon dioxide sequestration.

One quirk about this legislation is that it deals only with utility-scale power. It would not preclude private electricity-generation facilities such as the diesel generator a farmer might use to pump water. Nor would it count the power generated by a homeowner’s rooftop solar panels.

When the sun shines

One complication is that the state’s mix of energy sources can vary a great deal, even from one hour to the next.

Consider what happened on 8 April 2018, for example. It was a generally sunny and windy Sunday, with relatively low electricity demand. At night, about 40 per cent of electricity was generated from renewable sources. But around noon that day, more than 80 per cent came from renewable sources including large-scale hydropower.

If the electricity generated from these renewable sources is approximately doubled, as I estimate is necessary to meet the 2045 target, the power available in the middle of the day would greatly exceed the demand for electricity at that time.

This challenge shifts throughout the year.

On 24 and 25 July, Californians were asked to voluntarily use less electricity between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. to avoid an outage because of hot weather. Prices spiked by more than a factor of 10, helping to keep demand within the supply.

On those days, renewably sourced electricity never met half of the demand for power.

Balancing act

Due to this degree of variability, relying heavily on renewable energy will require ample energy storage and big investments in grid-based technology.

Today, the expected demand for electricity is balanced by the Independent System Operator, an entity that controls the flow of electricity on the grid and selects the lowest-priced sources of electricity available.

Pumped hydro storage, electricity generated from water pumped to a reservoir, is the state’s most common form of storage today. While limited to locations with large dams, the amount of energy stored this way could be increased in California, as recently proposed for Hoover Dam.

Big lithium ion batteries are becoming more affordable and are now beginning to be deployed on the utility scale. As battery and solar prices drop, it may become attractive to disconnect from the grid and use electricity generated by a solar system and stored by a battery.

Lower battery costs are also spurring the sales of more electric vehicles. Ideally, these vehicles could be charged at times when electricity is plentiful and cheap. By 2045, I believe they could be helping make the grid more stable.

Other options are becoming available. One example is utility-scale compressed air storage, where energy is stored as pressurised air.

And there is growing interest in solar thermal plants, which generate electricity from sunlight’s heat and use high-temperature storage to continue generating electricity after the sun sets.

The University of California Merced and many other wholesale electricity customers are saving money by using thermal storage. They chill water when rates are low and use the chilled water for air conditioning when electricity prices are high.


Wiggle room

Because California’s new law does not require that every watt be generated within California’s borders, utilities could keep buying electricity from nearby states, as long as they verify its origins are in keeping with the new law’s requirements.

And because the law does not define “zero-carbon,” it provides flexibility in how the state can meet this new target.

For example, California would allow the continued operation of natural gas plants when their output is coupled with purchase of renewable energy certificates, credits issued for the generation of renewable electricity that may be sold, from a utility that generates solar or wind power.

These credits arise through several kinds of arrangements. Perhaps the most common is through rooftop solar systems. Small-scale solar energy supplied about 5 per cent of California’s electricity in 2017. It is likely to grow because of California’s mandate for solar panels on most new homes, starting in 2020.

In assessing whether the goal of going zero-carbon by 2045 is realistic or not, it is worth considering that solar energy has grown for years at a pace that far exceeded projections: thanks to technological progress, government policies like California’s new law, market forces and the public’s demand for renewable energy.

The Conversation

Sarah Kurtz, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, University of California, Merced.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.