SDG&E batteries
An SDG&E employee walks in front of four of giant battery storage units in Escondido. Photo by Chris Jennewein

California’s law mandating 100% carbon-free electricity has a big hole in it. It fails to address energy storage.

Batteries as well as other longer-duration energy storage solutions are absolutely essential for a reliable supply of electricity that relies largely on energy resources such as solar and wind, which are available only some of the time.

Ordinarily, one might assume the state’s utilities would invest in large storage projects such as pumped storage, an efficient technology allowing the capture and storage of excess renewable energy so we don’t have to waste it.

When the sun is shining or the wind is blowing during the day, it pumps water uphill. That water is then run downhill to power turbines when renewable energy isn’t available. Voila. Energy for use when we need it.

But with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in bankruptcy and the issue of wildfire liability hanging over all utilities, it is up to the state to move forward the new long-duration bulk energy storage facilities needed to bring more renewable electricity into the power grid.

I have been in the energy business a long time. I have advised three presidents, served as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and spent three decades as general manager of numerous public utilities, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I was overseeing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power during the 2001 California energy crisis. In Los Angeles, we maintained reserve capacity and avoided blackouts that hit parts of the rest of the state.

Anyone who was in California during that time remembers those rolling blackouts and can appreciate the importance of a reliable electricity grid.

S. David Freeman

Put simply, we can’t keep the lights on if we don’t have enough power available to meet demand at its peak, like in the evening when folks get home from work.

California has nowhere near enough storage to handle the thousands of megawatts of new renewable energy that will be coming down the pike. We’re already leaving renewable energy wasted and unused because we can’t effectively store it.

But these bulk energy storage projects don’t happen overnight. They are major infrastructure projects with construction timelines of up to 10 years, sometimes more. To meet future demand, we should be breaking ground now.

So what’s the hold up?

Counter-intuitively, the same environmental groups that have championed the state’s climate goals want to kill all pumped storage instead of evaluating each project on its own merits.

All storage technologies have some environmental impact. Think lithium mining for batteries. And pumped storage uses water. But we need to be thinking about the greater good here.

Come hell or high water, there is no way that we can get to 100% renewable resources, which, by nature, are intermittent and unreliable, without adequate storage.

Thankfully, Sen. Steven Bradford of Gardena and some others get it. He and some fellow lawmakers are working on Senate Bill 772. That bill would allow the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the grid, to complete a competitive bid process to procure between 2,000 and 4,000 megawatts of long-duration bulk storage from multiple projects over the next several years to help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Bradford’s legislation does nothing to change California’s strict environmental protection laws. All energy storage projects are still subject to the same stringent environmental reviews that exist today before they can break ground. But it does provide a critical solution.

California has mandated a future that is renewable. That dream will turn bad without adequate storage. State lawmakers have it in their reach to make that vision a reliable reality.

David Freeman is an engineer, attorney and author and a former utility executive. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.