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California’s Clean Electricity Grid Powers Forward

Ralph Cavanagh's picture
Codirector, Energy Program, NRDC

Since joining NRDC in 1979, Ralph Cavanagh has focused on removing barriers to cost-effective energy efficiency and on the role that electric and natural gas utilities can play in leading a clean...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Sep 10, 2020

California’s clean energy policies are being blamed incorrectly for what some critics have called “crippling power outages.” The brief rolling blackouts ordered last month by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) hardly “crippled” the state, and severe heat and record-setting wildfires—both fueled by climate change—are what truly have been stressing California’s electric grid. In fact, the most promising reliability strategies will accelerate the state’s clean energy transition, which is reducing the very emissions driving the climate crisis.

Credit: Angeles National Forest

There is no question that any power interruption, no matter how brief, can be both onerous and dangerous to public health. But even in the face of epic natural disasters, California has not experienced “crippling” electricity shutoffs, nor has its leadership on climate solutions misfired. However, that is no excuse for complacency, and the state is responding aggressively to its recent electric system reliability challenges.  

Historic heat waves and wildfires    

As an historic regional heat wave first unfolded on August 14 and 15, grid managers executed a sequence of 90- to 120-minute service interruptions over two evenings, involving less than 5 percent of California utility customers, during a West-wide heat storm that severely stressed the entire regional electricity grid. Over ensuing weeks, the state and region have endured many more days of blazing heat and a record-setting explosion of wildfires (milestones included an all-time high of 121 degrees for Los Angeles County on September 6, more than 2.3 million acres burned as of September 8 [when the latest heat wave finally broke], fire-based transmission system disruptions, and devastation around the state’s largest source of hydropower at Big Creek). All of this has occasioned much human suffering, and the wildfire season is far from over.

Wildfires have knocked out power to some communities, and hundreds of thousands of households have been dealing with Public Power Safety Shutoffs initiated by utilities in advance of severe wind events that might spark more fires. These shutoffs are unrelated to electricity supply deficiencies, and California’s utilities have been adding system upgrades to reduce the scale and duration of the service interruptions.

But what of the massive “rolling blackouts” that many feared were inevitable under such extreme conditions, because of inadequate power supplies and grid failures?

Well, after the August 14 – 15 incidents, despite two extended heat waves and constant conflagrations, subsequent rolling blackouts through September 9 involved an easily remembered number of hours and utility customers: none.

State energy regulators give much of the credit to remarkable public cooperation in the form of voluntary customer reductions in electricity use, at just the right times on the hottest days, following urgent statewide appeals. That response was measured consistently in the thousands of megawatts of electricity saved daily, to be stretched across the stressed system (as opposed to a widely publicized federal waiver of pollution restrictions on aging power plants, which mobilized at most 100 megawatts of additional electricity).

Of course, even under extreme conditions, power system reserves should be sufficient to keep the lights on without the need for days of just-in-time voluntary demand reductions, not to mention pollution waivers. Why, then, did California suffer any rolling blackouts or need public appeals for voluntary curtailment—and do they signal flaws in California’s ambitious clean energy plans?

What California needs to do now

The electric service reliability issues that California confronted recently have nothing to do with its environmental and clean energy policies, which do not in any way affect standards for ensuring reliable electricity service to customers (some of which stem from federal oversight over interstate power grids like the one to which California is connected). California’s energy regulators and governor emphatically recognize the need for sufficient reserve power and infrastructure to cope with wildfire damage and heat waves, despite recent retirements of aging fossil generators.

Now that we know that there wasn’t always enough available power in recent weeks, what should be done to prevent recurrences?

Part of the answer lies in more aggressive deployment of the demand-side management strategies that California pioneered decades ago. We should use additional improvements in energy efficiency to reduce overall electricity needs, with emphasis on the hours of greatest grid stress when everyone is operating air conditioners and other devices, and make it easier and more worthwhile for customers to embrace automation that lets grid operators unobtrusively shift some of the remaining electricity demand to hours when the grid isn’t as busy delivering electricity. And we should push ahead with reforms to integrate a severely fragmented western power grid. Benefits include better planning and management of system reserves and reduced costs for transferring power across the region. Anyone who may have thought these were just obscure abstractions has cause now to reconsider.

Also important are strategies foreshadowed in a warning issued two years ago by Michael Picker, then president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC):

Fewer and fewer customers are getting power from the traditional large regional utilities and the central decision making that we use for keeping the grid reliable, safe and affordable is splintering, becoming the task of dozens of decision-makers [including Community Choice Aggregators and providers serving large commercial customers]. In the last deregulation, we had a plan, however flawed. Now, we are deregulating electric markets through dozens of different decisions and legislative actions, but we do not have a plan. If we are not careful, we can drift into another crisis.

Asked to comment on Picker’s prescient observations, in a contribution to that same CPUC report, I responded by invoking SB 350, a landmark clean energy bill enacted in 2017:

SB 350 requires each of California’s electricity providers to file “integrated resource plans” with their regulators. The plans collectively should form a roadmap for meeting California’s goals for environmental progress, affordability, and reliability. The statute doesn’t expressly require close coordination among the planners, but it creates the opportunity to achieve it with the right kind of leadership from all involved.

That recommendation is even more important now, and California’s association of Community Choice Aggregators is to be commended for recently highlighting the importance of the CPUC’s integrated resource planning process as a guide to future procurement for all involved in maintaining reliable power supplies. Decentralized responsibility for California’s electricity resource procurement was never intended to serve as an excuse for abdicating it. This isn’t primarily a CAISO issue, although CAISO has a key role to play in sounding the alarm when reserves fall short; the grid operator is responsible for the pathways that deliver power, not investments in the clean and affordable generation portfolios that will provide the power when needed. Collaboration by traditional utilities and the emerging host of local power providers is an important part of California’s path to reliable electricity service, in the face of weather and wildfire stresses that will only worsen as global climate change proceeds.

And the state’s clean energy transition (with particular emphasis on the demand side) will remain vital to ultimate solutions, and no part of the problem whatsoever.

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