Out West student blog

Solar Energy

Visiting the California Energy Commission; fourth from left, Commissioner David Hochschild.

By Jasmine Kerber
Alternative Spring Break 2017

This report was produced during the 2017 Alternative Spring Break course Environmental Policy in California. During winter quarter, students learned about environmental policy in California from a variety of Stanford faculty. Subsequently, over the course of spring break, the class traveled to Monterey and Sacramento to meet with policymakers, stakeholders, and visit energy and water facilities.

California has recently expanded its solar energy use, and we heard multiple perspectives on this shift during our ASB trip. At first glance, solar might seem like the perfect form of clean energy for this sunny state, but we can’t yet store solar power effectively enough to meet all our needs. During the day, solar panels at energy plants, on the rooftops of public buildings, and at private homes capture rays to create power. Unfortunately, right as the sun sets in the evening, many people return home from work, turn on the lights, and start up kitchen appliances or washing machines. During our visit to the Lodi natural gas plant, Operations Manager Jeremy Lawson explained to us that he has to ramp up production at the plant each evening to meet consumer demands. He worried that because solar energy is now less expensive than gas, people will invest growing amounts of money into solar panels when all we really need is solar storage. He also noted that the natural gas plant emits more carbon dioxide as it starts up than it does during regular production, so turning it on and off throughout the day is inefficient.

His proposed solutions? In addition to improving storage, citizens should run appliances during the day rather than in the evening to take advantage of prime sunlight hours and should decrease their overall energy use.

After visiting Lodi, we traveled to Sacramento to meet with policymakers including California Energy Commissioner David Hochschild. Commissioner Hochschild explained why he sees great promise in solar despite its storage challenges. First, he noted that solar panels are extremely modular. For instance, we can install panels on nearly any roof, where they’re invisible from street level and can provide energy directly to the building underneath without having to transport it through a grid.

Solar is also a good complement to wind energy, which tends to peak in the early morning and evening. Finally, although we still can’t use solar energy at night, Commissioner Hochschild sees hope for improved storage in the near future. Technologies including solar batteries and storage in molten salt are available, just expensive. If solar energy and solar storage continue to grow, however, he believes these devices might become more commonplace, bringing their prices down. He noted that the price of any new technology typically drops with time.

In the end, I’m convinced that solar is a key component of our energy mix. I would love to install solar panels on my own house one day—after all, they’re the only completely emissions-free, noise-free power producer. Of course, we can best reap the benefits of solar power by timing our energy use wisely, so I also want to try to reduce my evening electricity use. If enough people choose more efficient habits while storage technology continues to improve, I believe promoting solar energy will have a positive effect overall.

For the past 30 years, Alternative Breaks@Stanford have allowed undergraduates to explore complex social and cultural issues through a week-long immersive program. In 2017, the Bill Lane Center for the American West was pleased to support an Alternative Spring Break co-led by one of our Sophomore College alums, Matthew Cohen, and Elizabeth Trinh. Between winter and spring quarters, Matt and Elizabeth led a group of 12 students studying Environmental Policy in California, focused on climate change’s effects the Monterey Bay Peninsula. This series of blog posts highlights their experiences meeting with local leaders in Monterey and policymakers in Sacramento.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

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