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Rolling blackouts in California prove conventional power plants need to become extinct

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  • Aug 21, 2020

By Michael Colvin

On Monday this week, I got into my electric car and the following image popped up.

Image courtesy of electrek

My car was encouraging me to shift my charging patterns. Why?

California, along with large chunks of the rest of the West, is experiencing one of the worst heat storms on record. The weather pattern was abnormal, with less wind to cool people off at night. Since the heat storm hit most of the West, the ability to import power from our neighbors was also greatly compromised. The weather pattern also created over 11,000 lightning strikes, which sparked several wildfires throughout the state. In turn, those wildfires resulted in changed grid operations. Last, with more people staying home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, energy demands are higher and different than normal. As a result of all of these factors, the state’s electric grid operator issued an emergency alert, which triggered the state’s first rolling blackout in nearly two decades.

The situation resulted from a combination of a series of unusual events, some poor planning and unexpected generation shortages. The state’s electric grid operator, the California Independent System Operator or CAISO, is still figuring out the details. It appears the blackout was caused in part by a natural gas power plant that unexpectedly shut down because it could not handle the heat.  California does plan for extreme weather events and has a “reserve margin” of electric generators to prevent this very problem; there should be an extensive post-mortem trying to figure out what went wrong and what regulatory and infrastructure changes are needed.

After the first blackout, the state’s grid managers continued to warn that energy supply would be insufficient to meet the state’s higher demand. The emergency alerts continued through the weekend and into the next. My car was telling me to reduce my energy consumption in order to prevent another blackout.

This is part of a statewide campaign called a “Flex Alert” – which is a way to quickly shed demand for electricity by asking individuals to temporarily turn-off what they can. The response was so robust that CAISO was able to flatten the curve for demand like never before. Thanks in part to the message I got in my car, the blackouts stopped.

These flex alerts are a great measure of last resort, but the state should never use them as a long-term strategy. We need to create a more reliable electricity system that can handle high demand from increasingly unpredictable weather, and to help us to tackle the changing climate that is at the root of all of it.

During this conversation, some have inaccurately pointed to renewable energy causing the unstable grid conditions. That was quickly disputed by the CAISO. Renewables were not the problem in this situation; they provided the reliability. California lawmakers should reject the calls for increased reliance on natural gas fired generation to support reliability. Southern California Gas Company recently sued the California Energy Commission to keep gas part of the conversation, and given the failures of natural gas fired generation this past week, that argument looks to have very little merit.

Let’s be clear: California needs to make major new investments in the electric grid over the next decade to meet our clean energy objectives. Next month, each of the state’s load serving entities will submit new procurement plans to avoid future generation gaps. As we plan and add this new generation, we need to ensure that we have an affordable, clean and reliable electric grid. We need to reject the false argument that fossil fuels are the most reliable way of generating electricity – this week has proved the opposite is true.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 21, 2020

Conventional power plants need to become extinct? Michael, many of us need a reliable supply of electricity. If you don't feel conventional power plants offer what you need, you're free to cancel your account and generate your own electricity.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Aug 21, 2020

Some good info in the article but terrible title.

The primary reason that CA had power outages last Fri/Sat was because conventional power plants were shutdown before there was a plan to replace the lost capacity.

The below shows lost NG capacity in CA and you can also throw in over 2GW of lost capacity from San Onofre nuclear plant shutdown.

We don't need new NG capacity but we can't make all the old capacity "extinct" before we have a more robust grid.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 21, 2020

We don't need new NG capacity but we can't make all the old capacity "extinct" before we have a more robust grid.

Well said-- in our fervor to encourage the energy transition, it's important to stay rooted in the facts. There's a reason that it's a process and not snapping our fingers to make that transition happen overnight. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 22, 2020

"The primary reason that CA had power outages last Fri/Sat was because conventional power plants were shutdown before there was a plan to replace the lost capacity."

No gas plants were "shut down". The last thing gas generators would do is shut down when the spot price of wholesale electricity is going through the roof.

Two gas plants in Edison's service territory ran out of gas due to
gas transmission constraints - there was no gas coming out of the pipeline. They were the same constraints that forced Sempra to stuff so much gas into Aliso Canyon five years ago it blew a feeder line, causing the worst natural gas leak in U.S. history.

And reason the gas constraints existed at all was the shut down of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, two years before that.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Aug 22, 2020

Joe wrote:

Some good info in the article but terrible title.

Joe is a gentleman. My own reaction to the article, but especially to the title, was less charitable. Terrible title is too weak. Dispicable is the word I'd have used.

If I were in a tolerant mood, I might admire the arrogant chutzpah of the whole thing. It's politically perfect! Tactics taken from the playbook of Karl Rove, as extended and practiced by Donald Trump. Proclaim your weaknesses as strengths, attack your opponents strengths as weaknesses. Attack! Never defend. Defense make one appear weak. Truth is irrelevant. Shaping perceptions is what matters. When you're obviously wrong, lie, and create a distraction. Assert that the blackouts were caused by the failure of an unreliable conventional power plant, and that the way to avoid more blackouts in the future is to expand builds of "reliable" wind and solar, while retiring "unreliable" conventional capacity.

That type of Orwellian political thinking that has become far too common since the turn of the millenium. I'm sick of it!

To say that California's blackouts have resulted from a "perfect storm" of exceptional conditions that no one could have been forseen is disingenuous. There's no shortage of experts who have been warning us about the troubling erosion of contingency reserve capacity. That erosion has been the direct result of California's push for greater use on wind and solar. Higher cotributions from intermittent resources mean lower use of conventional resources that are nonetheless needed, for those times when wind and solar resources are under-delivering. Higher total system cost for the same net energy delivered = higher retail cost of electricity, regardless of how low the cost of as-available energy from the intermittent renewables is supposed to be. But higher retail cost of electricity -- and California's rates are the highest in the nation -- are bad news politically. The desire to contain rate increases leads to constant pressure to rationalize cutbacks to contingency reserves.

This isn't about renewable energy vs. fossil fuels. I view rapid climate from anthropogenic CO2 emissions as an existential threat. One war or another, we truly do need to stop the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. What this is about is honesty. Honesty in our analysis of costs and options. Honesty about how we got into this situation, and what it might take to get us out. EDF's article here is not honest.

IMHO, of course. As always, YMMD.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 23, 2020

"EDF's article here is not honest."

Here, possible motives for EDF's duplicity:


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