• Barbara Treat


This has turned into a year when you’re scared to ask the question: “What next?” An already tough year turned even rougher in California this past week as a weather pattern combining moisture from a tropical storm off the California Coast and heatwave blanketing the West triggered atmospheric instability and a “historic lightning siege” that sparked some 376 wildfires, many still raging, across the state. That heatwave also brought on a surge in power demand for air conditioning that ultimately pushed the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) to issue multiple Stage 2 and Stage 3 System Emergencies and institute a series of rolling blackouts across the state for the first time in two decades. Public pleas for consumer energy conservation and the application of various demand-response mechanisms have made further blackouts unnecessary as of this writing, but the weekend’s events show starkly that the state’s electricity system is vulnerable and reliability targets far from met. How does it happen that the 5th largest economy in the world – and an engine of global innovation – can’t keep the lights and internet on? That’s the question the Governor and everyone else has been asking. It is a critical question for industry and policy planners everywhere.

Even now, a few things are clear. First – it’s hard, if not impossible, to avoid seeing the link between climate change and the current crisis. The reality is that we live in a world in which we are now, and will continue to, experience increased temperatures and temperature extremes, more violent weather events, and an expanded fire season that once, at least in California, spanned August – November and now is nearly year-round. That reality has to be part of our planning. Things may get worse and plenty of climate forecasts predict just that -- but we should not be planning on a return to old weather patterns.

The second major takeaway is precisely what the earlier GreenTech article (we shared with readers) outlined. The rolling blackouts that darkened California were not just an unforeseeable freak occurrence. The heatwave certainly increased energy demand in California, but according to the state’s grid operator CAISO and other analysts, the real culprit is a “gap” in California’s reserves of generation capacity to manage late evening demand when intermittent renewable generation sources, especially solar, leave the system. This is the “net peak” which is about two hours behind the gross peak but represents the point when solar resources leave the system necessitating their rapid replacement with other sources. CAISO has been warning about this gap for some time.

Several excellent articles have already been written assessing the multiple factors that drove this particular crisis – but the bottom line seems to be that the complex stew of energy sources just didn’t provide enough baseload and resiliency to get through this past week’s requirements. Unusually high electricity demand, renewables going off-line during peak demand, and a steep (about 1,000 megawatts) drop in wind-power production due to climatic conditions created the initial emergency. CAISO instituted a series of actions to shed load and stabilize the system but couldn’t wheel-in power from neighboring states in adequate levels due to high temperatures spiking demand throughout the entire Western US region. At that point, the system also started losing power from at least one of its (likely gas-fired) generators and instituted the rolling blackouts.

CAISO has been pointing out this vulnerability for a long time. According to GreenTech and Wood MacKenzie’s Wade Schauer, over the past decade, California has shut down about 5 gigawatts of dispatchable generation (including the San Onofre nuclear power plant and thousands of megawatts of gas-fired plants with even more closures scheduled), while adding only about 2.2 gigawatts of non-intermittent generation since then. Schauer says that California “just hasn’t done enough to keep resource adequacy where it should be, and the reserve margins have gotten tighter more quickly”.

CAISO President Stephen Berberich didn’t blame solar power for the rolling blackouts but rather according to GreenTech’s reporting, “he accused the California Public Utilities Commission of failing to heed CAISO’s warning that it will need about 4,700 megawatts of additional grid capacity by 2022, including additional resources starting this year, to manage demand peaks as the sun is going down”. Berberich also called for changes in the Resource Adequacy plan administered by the CPUC to review how much reserve margin needs to be factored into planning as the system becomes more and more dependent on carbon-free intermittent energy resourced.

Although not part of this week’s conversation, this power system instability and vulnerability issue extends way beyond concerns about increased temperatures and wildfire potentials. The power grid is vulnerable to a host of potential disruptions. A recent report commissioned by the Department of Energy (DOE) and Homeland Security (DHS) outlined the US power systems vulnerability to long-duration blackouts stemming from natural disasters including “hurricanes, earthquakes, solar storms, cyber and physical attacks” as well as its vulnerability to operational errors. More violent and unpredictable weather will affect various technologies and systems in significantly different ways. Moreover, while distributed generation initiatives and community renewables systems have real value and an important role, they, too, need adequate backup.

So, it seems to us that all this points to the need to carefully rethink our assumptions about resiliency and system safety margins. Intermittent sources, even with battery back-up, are, well, intermittent. We need to be realistic about the fact that demand can spike and access to power during those times can literally be lifesaving – not optional. We need to be realistic about the fact that multiple systems can indeed all go off-line simultaneously, and that relying on neighboring jurisdictions to supply energy shortfalls might not work if your neighbors are dealing with the same crisis. No doubt demand response and “interruptible” commercial levers are useful. But at the end of the day, this highlights the need for baseload dispatchable power. Let’s make that clean, low/no carbon dispatchable power to the greatest extent possible, but the current “fallback” of diesel generators isn’t a magic bullet either. We should heed these wake-up calls. We are getting a lot of them these days.

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