Powering Strong Communities

California’s Duck Curves are Getting Deeper as Additional Solar Capacity Comes Online

As more solar capacity has come online in California, grid operators at the California Independent System Operator have seen a drop in net load -- or the demand remaining after subtracting variable renewable generation -- in the middle of the day when solar generation tends to be highest, the Energy Information Administration reported on June 21.

“When graphed for a typical day, the pattern created by the midday dip in the net load curve, followed by a steep rise in the evenings when solar generation drops off, looks like the outline of a duck,” so this pattern is often called a duck curve, EIA noted.

As solar capacity in California continues to grow, the midday dip in net load is getting lower, presenting challenges for grid operators, it said. As more solar capacity comes online, conventional power plants are used less often during the middle of the day, and the duck curve deepens.

EIA Graph; data source CAISO


Two Challenges

EIA said the duck curve presents two challenges related to increasing solar energy adoption.

The first challenge is grid stress. “The extreme swing in demand for electricity from conventional power plants from midday to late evenings, when energy demand is still high but solar generation has dropped off, means that conventional power plants (such as natural gas-fired plants) must quickly ramp up electricity production to meet consumer demand,” it noted.

That rapid ramp up “makes it more difficult for grid operators to match grid supply (the power they are generating) with grid demand in real time.” In addition, if more solar power is produced than the grid can use, operators might have to curtail solar power to prevent overgeneration.

The other challenge is economic. “The dynamics of the duck curve can challenge the traditional economics of dispatchable power plants because the factors contributing to the curve reduce the amount of time a conventional power plant operates, which results in reduced energy revenues,” the agency said.

If the reduced revenues make the plants uneconomical to maintain, “the plants may retire without a dispatchable replacement. Less dispatchable electricity makes it harder for grid managers to balance electricity supply and demand in a system with wide swings in net demand.”

Storage Opportunities

At the same time, the duck curve has created opportunities for energy storage, according to EIA.

“Storing some midday solar generation flattens the duck’s curve, and dispatching the stored solar generation in the evening shortens the duck’s neck.”

EIA said battery storage is swiftly being constructed in California, growing from 0.2 gigawatts in 2018 to 4.9 GW as of April 2023. Operators plan to build another 4.5 GW of battery storage capacity in the state by the end of the year, according to EIA’s Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory.

California offshore wind could help flatten duck curve, study finds

Offshore wind resources along the central California Coast are well suited to meet demand when it is most needed, according to a study released by researchers at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo in 2020.