How California Can Avoid Blackouts

September 8, 2020

For the Most Vulnerable, California Blackouts 'Can Be Life or Death' - The  New York Times

California avoided rolling blackouts in the heatwave over the weekend, but at the moment is seeing intentional outages being applied due to the increased fire dangers in much of the state.

I posted an analysis of recent California blackouts here, recommended.

The California System operator tweeted on Sunday and Monday that supplies were adequately maintained on the weekend.

Meanwhile, Cal ISO has written to Governor Gavin Newsom an explanation for the recent tight supply blackouts, which have become an issue for opponents of clean energy, including President Trump.

Letter from California System Operator (Cal ISO) to Governor Gavin Newsom, August 19, 2020:

Collectively, our organizations want to be clear about one factor that did not cause the rotating outage: California’s commitment to clean energy.

Renewable energy did not cause the rotating outages
Clean energy and reliable energy are not contradictory goals.

I interviewed Sonia Aggarwal for the upcoming video on the energy transition. Here she adds context for current strains on California’s grid.

Sonia Aggarwal is vice president of Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan energy and climate policy think-tank based in San Francisco,

Sonia Aggarwal in CalMatters:

California has been hit hard by record wildfires and abnormal heat, while a global pandemic silently persists, and for a few hours in August, rolling blackouts.  

The blackouts prompted finger-pointing among state agencies, but after initial sensationalist headlines and social media speculation, we’re learning what caused them and how to avoid them in the future.

Despite claims from fossil fuel proponents and misinformed journalists, we can definitively say renewable energy or California’s path to 100% net zero carbon emissions did not cause the blackouts. California’s three energy agencies confirmed this, saying “renewable energy did not cause the rotating outages … clean energy and reliable energy are not contradictory.”

Commentators politicizing the blackouts have used them to justify their fossil fuel love affair and rail against clean energy, but missed the bigger picture. Fossil fuels only accelerate the cycle of more heat, more fires, more strain on the grid, and more expensive climate damage mitigation measures. We cannot afford not to move full speed ahead with the clean energy transition.

Blackouts like these are an avoidable problem and a failure of grid planning, not renewable energy. It’s no surprise the sun sets every day – just like we plan for predictable changes in demand, engineers plan for renewables to maintain reliable grid operations. A lack of electricity supply at the hottest moments of the heat wave was the primary culprit. 

Three large natural gas plants were unexpectedly offline at critical times, and an executive at the state’s grid operator said if they were online, it would not have initiated rotating blackouts. 

Natural gas facilities have trouble performing in high heat, and California is baking in another record-setting summer, the kind climate change makes five times more likely. With neighboring states suffering the same regional heat wave, California was less able to lean on electricity imports, which would otherwise have been a backstop. 

California’s grid operator also said a large wind farm’s output unexpectedly decreased, but wind fluctuations are generally accounted for in normal grid operations. Combined with natural gas being offline and fewer imports, demand exceeded supply. Solar energy never failed the grid operator – all the solar California has added makes the grid less likely to fail during the hottest days.

California has an overly complex, multi-layered set of institutions overseeing the electricity system, partially a hangover from the 2001 energy crisis. The California Energy Commission forecasts demand, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to meet demand while directing what utilities buy, and the California Independent System Operator runs the grid. These agencies pointed fingers at one another after the blackouts, but have since begun working together on solutions. That’s a little late. 

Tradeoffs exist between reliability and cost; the customers bearing the risk of outages are the ones paying for backup power, the PUC makes choices about this trade-off on behalf of customers. For years clean energy developers, utilities and the grid operator have pushed for more clean energy investment; unfortunately the CPUC has been slow to act.

Without minimizing the suffering during the blackouts, it’s worth considering the context. California has not seen rolling blackouts since 2001, and federal standards suggest supply shortages once every 10 years constitute competent management. The length of outages and the number of affected customers pale compared to PG&E’s 2019 wildfire-related power shutoffs or everyday blackouts caused by events like trees falling on wires. 

Despite their infrequency, rolling blackouts are a harbinger of what’s coming as climate change impacts and weather extremes become the new normal, unless grid planners account for climate risks. Looking backward for future planning is no longer viable – improving grid reliability is crucial for people, economy and climate.  

These rolling blackouts validate California’s primary policy priorities: building renewables, rapidly adding batteriesreducing customer demand without sacrificing service when supplies are limited, improving energy efficiency and supporting solar-plus-storage installations.

Let’s add two more imperatives: A regional grid coordinating diverse power resources with neighboring states – like Washington’s hydropower and Wyoming’s wind –  and modernized grid planning so state agencies are aligned and equipped to operate a changing system. 

Today, California has limited electricity trading options, but creating a regional integrated power market could lower costs and increase reliability – indicated by $1 billion saved across the limited Western Energy Imbalance Market. Two-thirds of all electricity sold in the U.S. benefits from these regional markets, and it’s time the West did too. 

There’s no silver bullet to keep the lights on in a climate-changed future, but California’s grid planners should convene experts to fundamentally rethink how we plan for a more flexible grid – and the PUC has started this process.

California has led America’s clean energy transition, and the world is watching how we tackle the thorniest climate policy challenges. Let’s use this moment to refresh our plan to build the clean energy grid we need – creating good jobs and cleaner air while addressing climate change.


2 Responses to “How California Can Avoid Blackouts”

  1. doldrom Says:

    Unfortunately everyone (except for a very small slice of well-informed people) has been inundated with the message that renewables cannot be relied on — those idiots: even we could have told them that the sun does not always shine nor is there always wind. Telling people that it was in fact NG plants that went offline is met with incredulity and accusations of making stuff up.

    Where I live the grid is far more reliable than anywhere in the US, but the only time the limits are within sight is at the end of hot/dry summers, when cooling water becomes a problem (for fossil fuel plants).

  2. redskylite Says:

    Local leaders praise energy aggregators, focus blackouts on climate change

    “While some people blame the rolling power outages on the state’s transition to clean energy, the real culprit is a changing global climate,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, and San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones wrote in their opinion piece in the Mercury News.

    The trio also focused in their opinion piece on the role community choice aggregators (CCAs) are playing in helping “achieve our climate goals and improve local resilience.”

    All three serve as board members of their local CCAs, which are governed by local boards, unlike PG&E.

    Ellenberg, Pine, and Jones noted that conservation, which has prevented further shut offs, must be part of a larger package.

    They hone in on the need for added energy storage, which many CCAs and other electric providers are building out.

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