The recent announcement that the planet was warmer in 2023 than any other year in history — with records broken for ocean temperatures, sea level rise, Antarctic sea ice loss and glacier retreat — was sobering. Also last year, 21 species went extinct in the U.S. alone, including birds, mussels, fish and one mammal. Because greenhouse gases released from burning fossil fuels are driving our planet’s warming and the related climate impacts, the actions necessary to slow this concerning trend are clear: we need to stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Transitioning to clean, renewable energy is central to that goal. Because offshore wind naturally complements other renewable power, like solar, we need to take offshore wind seriously as a promising way to provide people with electricity while transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Every day, the amount of power being consumed across California changes minute to minute. Every time you flip a light on or off, plug in an electric tea kettle, run your dishwasher or charge a device, you change the total amount of electricity being consumed at that moment. Multiply those changes by 40 million Californians and you get the dynamic power demand for that day. Our electric grid operator, the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), is tasked with matching the right amount of electricity supply to ever-changing electricity demand. Too little supply and the lights go out, too much supply and you waste a lot of electricity. This process is called “balancing the grid.”

Back in the bad old days when all of our electricity came from fossil fuels, balancing the grid was relatively simple. As power demand increased, we would simply burn more coal or gas to generate electricity, and vice versa when it decreased — but renewable energy doesn’t work like that. Unlike more predictable, controllable (but environmentally destructive) fossil fuels, most renewables are intermittent, since solar panels require sun and wind turbines require wind in order to generate electricity. Today, grid operators have to balance the State’s ever-changing power demand with ever-changing renewable energy supplies, which is a lot harder! The grid operator for the United Kingdom made a fun little game you can play to learn just how hard their job is.

This coal power plant is environmentally destructive but easy to predict. Photo: Carol Highsmith, public domain.

California has installed approximately 46,874 megawatts worth of solar panels. Rooftop solar makes up about 10% of our state’s electric supply, and another 14% comes from utility-scale solar fields. The result is that on a sunny day, California generates a lot of solar electricity.

The graph below represents electricity demand in the State of California on March 17, 2024. The teal curve is total demand for electricity throughout the day. You can see it goes up a bit when people wake up in the morning, dips when folks are at work or school and aren’t using their appliances at home, and then jumps back up pretty quickly when people start to come home and turn all of their appliances back on. The purple curve represents net demand — the amount of electricity we need, minus the amount of electricity generated by renewables like wind and solar. As you can see, net demand drops precipitously when the sun rises and solar panels begin generating electricity, and then rises very steeply when the sun sets as solar panels stop working.

Hooray! We’ve achieved near zero emission electricity for the State of California when the sun is shining. Source: CAISO

First, let’s just pause and congratulate ourselves! By installing all that solar, we’ve reduced California’s average daily carbon emissions from electricity generation by thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide. The graph below depicts the carbon dioxide (or its equivalent in other greenhouse gasses) emissions during that same day for the entire California electric grid. As you can see, emissions drop considerably as the sun rises and then rise steeply as the sun sets.

Source: CAISO

But this success has also created an extra challenge for grid operators. Every single day, grid operators have to be ready for the sun to set and solar panels to stop working just around the same time that folks are getting home from work and turning on all of their appliances — a sharp decrease in renewable energy paired with a sharp increase in demand for electricity. Currently, operators handle that by importing a lot of fossil fuel energy from other states and quickly turning on a lot of natural gas power plants. Such natural gas power plants that can be quickly ramped up are known as “peaker plants,” and are unfortunately far dirtier than natural gas plants that operate at a constant pace. California has close to 80 peaker plants, about half of which are located in disadvantaged communities. Therefore, by over relying on solar renewable energy, we’re both failing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at night and spewing a lot of air pollution onto vulnerable Californians.

Batteries can help a bit with storing energy, but are not without their own problems. Lithium mining has serious environmental consequences. We’re already seeing the negative impacts of lithium mining with the amount of batteries we need now, and there would be even more destruction if we try to rely on lithium batteries for all of our energy needs every night. Beyond the environmental cost, there is also a considerable financial cost, as well as a considerable loss of power when storing electricity in a battery and then using it later. Unlike a battery, wind turbines can create new electricity at night and ensure that the lights stay on without polluting vulnerable communities or the atmosphere. Other strategies, like increasing our energy efficiency and reducing our consumption by designing communities that don’t require a car, are also necessary to reduce total energy demand but don’t solve the problem of what to do at night.

Wind energy is necessary to solve this problem. Because the wind keeps blowing even when the sun sets, we can use it to avoid turning on dirty gas power plants. Offshore wind is particularly helpful at solving this problem because it tends to blow more consistently than onshore wind, and the winds off the coast of Northern California and Southern Oregon are some of the strongest and most consistent winds in the entire United States. By linking that offshore wind energy to the California electric grid, we can ensure that the state doesn’t have to turn on a bunch of dirty peaker plants every night when the sun sets. Similarly, if we ever want to shut down our local natural gas power plant, the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, we will need to replace it with a consistent source of electricity that works at night.

It’s really windy off our coast! Source National Renewable Energy Laboratory

If we want to stop burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, slow the climate catastrophe, and avoid using some of the other proposed non-fossil fuel energy sources like nuclear and hydro, we are going to need wind power. And one of the best places in the country to implement offshore wind is off our coast. This is Humboldt’s opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the global fight to end climate change and directly benefit disadvantaged communities that live next to dirty natural gas power plants. For an organization that is very good at saying “no” to things, EPIC isn’t willing to rule out the proposed Humboldt offshore wind project without taking a hard look at all of the impacts, both positive and negative. We will continue to watch and engage with the planning process closely, read every study that comes out regarding the impacts of offshore wind, and advocate for the project to follow strict environmental rules, processes, and governance. But at the end of the day, I’m open to offshore wind because the climate crisis terrifies me and offshore wind has the potential to make a meaningful difference.


Matt Simmons is the Climate Attorney at the Environmental Protection Information Center