California's Fires and the Current Limits of Digital Innovation
image credit: Photo 27295203 © Anže Mulec -
Northern California looks like hell. On top of a pre-existing homeless crisis and mind-boggling real estate inflation, historic fires have covered the bay area in an apocalyptic-like red haze. Although it doesn’t seem that the blame lies in the hands of negligent utilities, power companies in the region must now perform a delicate balancing act: Avoid contributing to the fires while also meeting sky-high demand during a global pandemic.
The same historic heat wave that has, at least in part, caused the fires, also has californians consuming a ton of electricity. Smart technology, both related to transmission and energy efficiency, has helped mitigate power shortages. Particularly, advanced metering and other digital technologies have allowed for great consumer side energy conservation.
However, digital ingenuity has not been enough. To keep up with demand, state and federal agencies have reacted quickly. Last weekend, the Department of Energy issued an order that allows CAISO to pull from three extra gas-fired plants through this week. The order came on the heels of the state operator’s request for breaks on air-quality standards.
Although the involved players undoubtedly see this move as a one-off emergency exception, it is unclear how such a situation will be mitigated in the future. Under their current long-term contract, the region simply does not have enough reserve power to absorb such an emergency. This is a major problem seeing as that these summer blazes seem to becoming the new norm. A smarter, more responsive grid will certainly be needed, but sexy technology is no silver bullet in this case. California needs more generation to keep up, period.