The Weekend Wonk: Blackouts Show How California Grid Must Evolve

August 23, 2020

Utility Dive:

The following is a contributed article by Alex Gilbert, project manager at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, and Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines and professor of public policy.

A severe heat wave brought high electric prices and rolling electricity outages to California last week, with as many as twomillion customers suffering a loss of power. Already, some are trying to politicize the blackouts, blaming renewables and California’s aggressive energy transition. However, the situation is considerably more complex than this simplistic narrative. 

While service reliability in the United States is generally high, weather events frequently cause outages and interruptions. Faced with an especially severe heat wave throughout the western U.S., California’s electric grid is grappling with how to maintain service at a time of very high air conditioning usage. 

Power sources, the state’s regulatory structure, institutional responses and market design are all factors. Knee-jerk reactions and pre-prepared policy prognostications are an insufficient response to identifying the causes of the disruptions and developing solutions.

California’s recent woes began near the end of last week, as severe region-wide heat led the grid operator to issue an emergency alert and conservation request warning about potential capacity risks. On Friday, as evening approached, solar generation began to fall as expected, requiring other resources to ramp up to maintain reserve margins. Managing periods during this time, the well-known ‘duck curve,’ is usually predictable and hence straightforward. However, with hot temperatures continuing into the evening, air conditioning needs remained high. 

After a natural gas unit tripped offline, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) issued a Stage 3 Electrical Emergency, and directed utilities, particularly PG&E, to begin load-shedding. By implementing rolling blackouts that impacted 200,000-250,000 customers per hour, overall grid reliability was maintained. 

In combination with this high demand, the proximate cause of the blackouts were generator outages. On Friday, a 500MW natural gas unit tripped offline while another 750 MW gas unit unexpectedly remained out of service.

On Saturday, the loss of a 470 MW gas unit combined with a 1,000 MW loss of wind power. Further, the regionwide nature of the heat wave is limiting the grid operator’s ability to increase imports from out-of-state. One engineer noted that CAISO’s reserve margins were relatively high during the rolling blackouts, suggesting that CAISO was being cautious in case of a generator or transmission line outage. 


Everybody had known for days that a heat wave was about to wallop California. Yet a dashboard maintained by the organization that manages the state’s electric grid showed that scores of power plants were down or producing below peak strength, a stunning failure of planning, poor record keeping and sheer bad luck.

All told, power plants with the ability to produce almost 6,000 megawatts, or about 15 percent of the electricity on California’s grid, were reported as being offline when temperatures surged last Friday. The shortfall, which experts believe officials should have been able to avoid, forced managers of the grid to order rolling blackouts in the middle of a pandemic and as wildfires across the state were spreading.

When utilities cut power to their customers, the peak demand had reached 47,000 megawatts on Friday and 45,000 on Saturday. Those were far below the highest day — 50,270 on July 24, 2006 — or the 50,116 clocked three years ago.

Perhaps even more baffling is that the agencies did not turn to the state government for help until just before the blackouts began. Had they done so, Mr. Newsom could have called on power plants that the state and municipal utilities control to generate more power or made a plea to businesses and homeowners to conserve power — steps he took on Monday after the scope of the problem became clear.

Steve Berberich, president and chief executive officer of California I.S.O., on Tuesday defended his organization’s decision to order rolling blackouts rather than dipping into reserve power supplies set aside for emergencies. He said the grid had to keep some reserves on hand in case a plant like Diablo Canyon unexpectedly shut down.


Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the state needs to do more to store and sell clean energy sources, and he hopes this week’s blackouts will prompt officials to act.

“This is kind of a stress test on the system,” he said. “We have not built up enough of a smart enough system to take advantage of all the renewables we have in place.”

Inside Clean Energy:

The reality is that grid operators and policymakers already are aware of the tools they need to operate a clean and reliable grid. California is ramping up construction of battery storage systems that can charge during the day and then provide electricity to the grid in the evening when solar power is fading. The state also has an untapped resource in offshore wind, which would provide electricity in many of the hours when solar is not active.

The problem is that it will take years to build enough storage and probably a decade or more to build offshore wind.

So I’m going to focus on a solution that’s available right now: “demand response,” a catch-all term for technologies and policies that unobtrusively reduce customers’ electricity use during times of crisis so that the system remains stable.

“There’s a shared responsibility for a lot of people for this problem,” said Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University, about the blackouts.

What Keeps California Running

Rather than blame companies or regulators for the blackouts at a time when it’s still not entirely clear what happened, Mulvaney said he wanted to focus on the larger issue of how we can avoid blackouts by reducing electricity demand.

Demand response can be as simple as utilities issuing public messages encouraging customers to adjust their thermostats to reduce electricity use. The utilities did this in California, but Mulvaney was frustrated that the messages were not widely disseminated.

“It seems the utility’s lost its ability to connect to its customers,” he said. “We didn’t get any text messages or anything.”

Customers already have a highly contentious relationship with the utility Pacific Gas & Electric over issues that include the company’s use of forced blackouts affecting millions of people last year to deal with wildfire risks.

But even with the problems in communication, the utilities were able to avoid more extensive blackouts this week because the public responded to alerts asking for people to reduce electricity use.

Mulvaney said he is excited about the ways that technology can be used to reduce demand. I’m excited by this, too. Take a look at some of the demand response research and analysis being done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to get an idea of the potential.

Some businesses already have systems in which they get payments in exchange for agreeing to reduce electricity use at times of high demand. In some cases, a central controller can turn down the power, or have the customer switch to battery power.

The same kinds of technologies can be used to reduce electricity in households and neighborhoods, sending electronic messages to water heaters and other appliances to reduce their power use, one of numerous measures that are meaningful for the grid but are barely noticeable for the customer.

If entire neighborhoods signed up to participate in demand response programs, grid operators would have more flexibility to make small adjustments, ensuring the grid remains stable.

But these systems are not used nearly as widely as they could be, Mulvaney said.

He said he would like to see state lawmakers and the California Public Utilities Commission take action to create more robust incentives for utilities to use demand response technologies.

Utility Dive again:

Moving forward, an in-depth review of the proximate and structural causes of California’s issues is needed to chart a new path forward. As extreme weather events become more common due to climate change, and the decarbonization imperatives drives the energy transition, existing and creative solutions are needed to ensure blackouts remain infrequent and short. 

Humility and patience in diagnosing the grid’s challenges are needed to navigate a new electric grid.

9 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Blackouts Show How California Grid Must Evolve”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Same topic, Zeke Hausfather on Slate a few days ago:

    California Reveals That the Transition to Renewable Energy Isn’t So Simple

    “But California’s experience also underscores a growing consensus among energy scholars: that variable renewable energy technologies are unlikely to meet the grid’s power demand by themselves. They will play an important role, but more firm generating sources, like next-generation nuclear reactors, natural gas plants with carbon capture technologies, enhanced geothermal, and others that can balance out variable renewables, will be required.

    To be clear: Rising energy costs and the ongoing reliability crisis cannot be blamed entirely on California’s growing solar and wind sectors. But this month’s challenges surface the complexities and difficulties of energy transitions, and the imperative of maintaining a flexible and diverse supply of energy technologies. If this month’s blackouts continue, there is a risk California’s ratepayers will come to associate them with the state’s clean energy transition.”

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I differ with my greatly respected friend Zeke only in emphasis.
      I believe the issues in California last week are addressable with changes in procedures – in particular, hard to understand that demand response is not more robust in CA.
      Debate about “firm” energy sources amounts to “How do we cover the last 10 percent or so?” on the way to carbon free.
      If “new” nuclear can address all the concerns people have, and satisfy investors, then have at it – but there won’t even be a prototype till later in the 2020s.
      As the next video coming soon shows, we can see a path to 90 percent clean energy by 2035 – meaning mainly solar/wind, existing nuclear (taking retirements into account) and keeping a little existing gas at that point.
      I don’t think anyone would bet we won’t be seeing some paradigm-shifting technologies, including EVs, storage, and advanced grid integration, by then.

  2. John Oneill Says:

    You can see on the graph of California’s power generation how closely natural gas mirrors rises and falls in renewable energy. Gas got a double boost after 2011, as San Onofre’s reactors closed, nuclear output halved, and renewables had a few lean years in a row. Expect another boost for gas when the remaining power plant, Diablo Canyon, closes in four years. A reliable source of low carbon energy could not stay solvent if the State mandated 50% of it’s power come from renewables, and only bought nuclear when the wind and sun didn’t oblige. Since nuclear plants in the US have been averaging 92% capacity factor, versus 26% for wind and 28% for solar in California, there’s plenty of room for gas plants to make a buck. They have low cost plant and comparatively high cost fuel, compared to nuclear’s high capital cost and low fuel cost. Hopes that solar thermal might partly bridge the evening power gap have been dashed with the bankruptcy of pioneer plant Crescent Dunes, which never reached its target production, and in fact used a lot of gas itself to preheat its boilers.

  3. redskylite Says:

    From “The Atlantic” – AUGUST 23, 2020

    “How Can We Plan for the Future in California?
    The state’s heat waves, blackouts, and fires—amid a pandemic—offer a warning of our fossil-fuel future.

    In reality, several fossil-gas plants unexpectedly went offline when the heat wave struck, resulting in less available power. Gas plants can struggle to operate in the heat. In an ironic twist, burning fossil fuels will become less reliable in our hotter world. ”

  4. dumboldguy Says:


    What we should be talking about is building up the grid in those places where the Californians will have to migrate to when climate change makes CA uninhabitable. Many have already moved to Colorado, which led to the popular bumper sticker “Don’t Californicate Colorado”. Unfortunately, CO is feeling the effects of the megadrought also, and may not be a choice (I wonder how the folks in Arkansas will feel about large numbers of CA migrants?)

    • redskylite Says:

      Of course you are right, but organizations don’t like to own/plan for that future, (which may be not so far ahead). What sort of world are we leaving ?

      “Extreme drought and rainfall will affect food production in rural areas, forcing people to move to cities, exacerbating pressure on already vulnerable urban infrastructure; the Red Cross estimates that 96 percent of urban growth will occur in cities that are among the most fragile in the world. This, according to the analysis of the New York Times and ProPublica, will favor an increase in unemployment, crime and socio-economic inequalities, increasing social tension and political crises. Obviously cities will not be able to welcome migrants forever and estimates foresee a reversal of the original trend, as in the case of Addis Ababa — the World Bank predicts that many of the people who are now seeking refuge in the Ethiopian capital will have to leave the city again by the middle of the century.”

  5. doldrom Says:

    This has caused a lot of reputation damage for renewables.

    There are thousands of nitwits/pundits who are now claiming that the greenie idiots who did not foresee the fact that the sun does not always shine have now proven that renewable energy is unreliable, just as their perspicacious minds knew all along.

    None of them are going to sort through the details about grid problems (and decades of neglect) or the role played by unreliable intermittent natural gas plants.

  6. […] I posted an analysis of recent California blackouts here, recommended. […]

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