The biggest problem solar and wind energy have to solve before they upend the global power mix isn’t cost (though that is still very much a problem), it’s their intermittency. Neither renewable energy source is consistent, and that’s a big problem when you consider that maybe the most important feature of power consumption, from a consumers’ perspective, is its consistency. But solar panels can’t supply power to the grid when the sun isn’t shining, and wind turbines are similarly hampered on windless days, so until we develop cost-effective and commercially scalable storage options, the intermittency problem is going to remain.
This effectively caps the market share renewables can reasonably obtain. Even if we saw dual breakthroughs in panel and turbine technologies and both energy sources suddenly became cheaper than their fossil fuel cousins, we wouldn’t be able to deploy them en masse in pursuit of the kind of 100 percent renewable future greens like to daydream about. Our grids wouldn’t be able to handle the inconsistency, and without baseload sources of power, we simply couldn’t guarantee people that the lights would always turn on when they flicked the switch.
That said, we can still curtail emissions even without a fully renewable energy mix. Natural gas can provide baseload power on those cloudy windless days, and it can do so emitting just half as much carbon as coal-fired plants. But more than that, gas-fired plants are less expensive and take less time to build, so there’s less of a need to have them up and running 24/7. That makes them ideal complements for wind and solar power—when the elements aren’t cooperating, we can ramp up gas-fired power production, but when they are, we can ease that supply down without bankrupting the plant.
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that California relies primarily on natural gas plants to help balance its increasingly renewables-dependent (and therefore increasingly unbalanced) power load. The EIA reports:
Because of differences in the hourly output of certain electricity generators, some of which are nearly constant (nuclear) and some of which can vary considerably during the day (solar, wind), output from thermal generators (mainly natural gas) and electricity imports from other regions are used to balance overall electricity supply and demand in the region…Thermal generation…almost all of which is natural gas, contributes the largest share of electricity generation in [California] and has the widest range in hourly generation.
Greens will tout the increases in renewables’ installation until they’re blue in the face, but they tend to shy away from the grittier details that continue to constrain their favored energy sources. It’s a stroke of great fortune that just as wind and solar are starting to find a foothold in certain states, the United States (and, broadly speaking, the world) is awash in large quantities of cheap natural gas. They produce power in very different ways, but renewables and natural gas make natural partners. Thanks to shale, we have more than enough here in the United States to help wind and solar wrangle with their persistent intermittency issues.