For more than a decade, Norris Realty Advisors has been involved in a wide variety of major conventional and renewable power developments throughout California.
We Californians love the dream of unplugging from the grid and becoming "carbon free", but may of us are quite passionately opposed to new development on a massive scale. In the future it is becoming more likely that these two opposing forces will clash.
Governor Brown signed into law Senate Bill 100 this month, committing the state's utilities to getting all of their electricity from renewable sources by 2045. While this is a laudable goal, this effort may be rooted in wishful dreaming.
To expand renewable power sources would require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects. The simple math of the plan to become completely renewable does not seem to work.
The Solar Dilemma
Last year, global solar capacity totaled about 219,000 megawatts. That means an "all-renewable" California would need more solar capacity in the state than currently exists on the entire planet. California can (and will) add lots of new rooftop solar over the coming decades. But a renewable plan would also require nearly 33,000 megawatts of concentrated solar plants, or roughly 87 facilities as large as the 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar complex now operating in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah, which covers 5.4 square miles, met fierce opposition from conservationists due to its impact on the desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species under the federal and California endangered species acts. This is approximately 470 total square miles of solar power facilities that would be required in California.
Wind - An Awful Lot of Land Needed
Wind energy faces much larger problems. The Department of Energy has concluded in multiple reports over the last decade that no matter where they are located - onshore or offshore - wind-energy projects have a footprint that breaks down to about 3 watts per square meter.
To get to the required 124,608 megawatts (124.6 billion watts) of onshore wind capacity, California would need 41.5 billion square meters, or about 16,023 square miles, of turbines. To put that into perspective, the land area of Los Angeles County is slightly more than 4,000 square miles - California would have to cover a land area roughly four times the size of L.A. County with nothing but the massive windmills.
In 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in unincorporated areas. Three other California counties - San Diego, Solano and Inyo - have also passed restrictions on turbines.
The Visual Effect
As we have been involved in consultation on many of these projects, this math fascinates us. We undertook a quick measurement using Google Earth of the land areas and elevations that may be a stake in the effort to become "all-renewable". The visual effects are stunning.
Below is a map showing the land areas that might be required for solar and wind production superimposed over Southern California.
The green circle represents the total land need for wind, and the red circle is the need for solar land.