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Rolling blackouts and wildfires are the desperate cries for load-shedding and microgrids

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Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 753 items added with 371,795 views
  • Sep 28, 2020

In August, California announced its first non-wildfire-related rolling blackouts since 2001. The cause? A brutal heatwave that brought inclement temperatures to the west coast of the United States. Residents and businesses were readying to blast their AC units, placing an unsustainable burden on the state’s centralized electric grids.

Then, to close out the summer, the wildfires came, threatening large swaths of utility customers access to power. Such are the modern-day problems of centralized power grids.

But let’s focus on the mid-August threat of non-wildfire rolling black outs. Customers connected to the centralized grids faced black outs that could last 1-2 hours. That is worrisome in such a dramatic heatwave and threatening for people who rely on electrical life-supporting devices.  

According to news reports, the state’s various microgrid operators fared just fine and even stepped up for their surrounding communities. According to Microgrid Knowledge, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps switched 22 ships from on-shore power and put them on generators and flipped on their microgrid systems, shedding 23.5 MW of power off the centralized power grid. Another six microgrids, financed by California’s Electric Program Investment Charge program, were able to shave 1.2 MW off the grid load and the Blue Lake Rancheria tribal community, right in the path of the rolling blackouts, turned their microgrid to island mode and welcomed people from the surrounding communities to come take advantage of their electricity island.

The benefits to microgrids for the purpose of load-shedding have been well documented for a while now but we’ve still seen barriers to the wide-armed embrace of the technology by state and local governments. As the technology is still relatively new, there remain legal barriers to their embrace, some of which are owed to a lack of standard definition, state to state, region to region, community to community. The financing can also be tricky.

Will 2020 be the year that we finally begin to see a full-throated endorsement by politicians and government leaders? It appears we are running out of time.

For the barriers to state-adoption of widespread microgrids, the private market has made progress. The company OhmConnect oversees a collection of home microgrids and actually took those private home grids and put their capacity to the grid, creating an additional 220 MWh of capacity to the struggling centralized power grid in California. OhmConnect paid customers $300,000 in a single day, according to Microgrid Knowledge, for their portion of the capacity the company provided to the larger grid.

This year saw an extreme wildfire season and extreme heat. Nothing indicates that this was a one-time occurance. This is likely going to be our reality heading into the future. Microgrids needs to see a wider embrace if we’re going to mitigate overloading our power sources and standing resilient against wildfire season.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 28, 2020

Christopher, California experienced record demand of 50,270 MW in 2006 - fourteen years ago. But because San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was churning out 2.2 GW of reliable electricity it wasn't a problem then, and it wouldn't have been a problem now.

We could build more band-aids - microgrids, renewables, gas plants, big batteries, transmission etc. - and we might be able to prevent the problem from getting worse when Diablo Canyon is abandoned in 2025. Or maybe we could keep Diablo Canyon open, and re-commission SONGS.

Why make the challenge more difficult than it needs to be?

Richard McCann's picture
Richard McCann on Sep 30, 2020

The current peak demand was only just over 47,000 MW, so we shed enough load to offset the retirement of SONGS. We have another 3300 MW of new capacity coming on line by 2023 which will easily replace the 2200 MW of Diablo (which is poorly placed to provide the local resource adequacy that we need.) And the conditions in August were 1 in 100, not the usual 1 in 10 used for planning reserve margins. We cannot afford absolute perfect reliability. It's time to shut down expensive dinosaurs.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 30, 2020

We cannot afford absolute perfect reliability. It's time to shut down expensive dinosaurs.

Reminds me of the adage "don't let the perfect get in the way of the good enough." Of course when we're dealing with whether or not people (especially vulnerable populations like the elderly or those in hospitals), then absolutely as close to perfect as possible is of course necessary. But it's similar to the idea that the immense difficulty to get the grid 100% off of fossil fuels and into clean energy sources isn't a good reason not to push to get us 70%, 80%, 90% of the way there-- it's not perfect, but that's not reason not to make that push to the 'better' or borderline 'good enough.'

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 30, 2020

Matt, grids in the world powered by more than 40% renewable energy can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Every one of them has abundant natural hydro or geothermal sources, and that's barely enough (Rosatom has submitted bids for new nuke plants in both Brazil and Argentina).

Even added incrementally, I have yet to hear of one grid where wind and solar hasn't significantly increased the price of electricity. And 50%+ wind and solar is a fantasy - always has been, always will be.

People who believe in 70%, 80%, 90% W&S? They're delirious.

Christopher Neely's picture
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