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Blackouts...A Necessary Evil?

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Nevelyn Black's picture
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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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The devastating hurricane that hit Puerto Rico in 2017 still holds the record of longest blackout in U.S. history.  The area was recently promised $13 billion in federal funding to rebuild its electrical grid.  While Puerto Rico continues repairs to its grid, Mexico’s power utility Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) is blaming their recent blackout on renewable energy sources.  A massive power outage on December 28th took 8,696 MW of electricity offline.  Spokesman Luis Bravo Navarro acknowledged a brush fire as part of the problem but said the blackout in Mexico was more widespread due to an “excess of intermittent generation.”  Did an unexpected event, in this case a brush fire, cripple the utilities’ ability to provide quick restoration to one-third of the population?  Are renewables and their intermittent nature a liability or an asset?  Much debate about this and how the outage was handled continues but a more formal investigation seems unlikely.  

Instead of blaming renewables for blackouts, California plans to increase them.  Officials at the commission and the California Independent System Operator are optimistic about the virtual power plant agreement between Southern California Edison and Sunrun.  By bundling the power from solar-powered battery systems to create a “virtual power plant”, Sunrun will release stored solar energy to the grid when it’s needed and reduce the strain on the grid.  In an effort to prevent a repeat of last summers blackouts, the commission is also pleased with “flexible demand” programs that pay people to use less electricity.    The energy research firm Wood Mackenzie reported that California’s power grid operator called on flexible demand providers an unprecedented 70 times during the week of Aug. 14, which began with two nights of rolling blackouts.

Hot summer temperatures in California are expected to plague the area again this year so utilities and officials are trying to prepare now. “This is an emergency,” said Lynn Jurich, chief executive of San Francisco-based Sunrun Inc.  She added, “How we regulate our energy markets and how we incorporate innovation — we need to go a lot faster.” Record heat threatens power distribution in the summer but winter’s strong winds provide no relief for California’s grid.  Southern California utility and Sempra Energy had to cut power to more than 26,000 homes and businesses during a Christmas Eve wind storm.  The reason for the blackout was to prevent live power lines from sparking fires during high winds.  Fortunately, the blackout was not as widespread as they had originally feared.  Needless to say, keeping the lights on is a year-round challenge for the state.  Ed Randolph of the utilities commission’s energy division said, “In the long run, the promise of demand response intuitively makes sense and is something we should pursue,” he said. “In the short run, there’s still a lot of learning to be done. And as we’re looking to reliability for next summer, it’s not the place where we can sit here and say, ‘Let’s experiment.’”

Southern California Edison and East Bay Community Energy are both taking the leap with Sunrun’s virtual power plant.  Spreading the megawatts across thousands of homes and businesses means “there’s not a single point of failure,” said Nick Chaset, East Bay’s chief executive.  Blackouts are the result of equipment failure but are also used as preventive measures…a necessary evil, if you will.  Are renewables part of the problem or the solution?  Will solar-plus-storage and flexible demand programs prevent interruption?  Will the efforts of California’s utility companies eliminate power supply interruptions, even during a blackout?

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 8, 2021

I see where you're coming from, but understandably I don't think you'll ever see a utility position blackouts as anything close to necessary-- and especially when there are so many health/safety/economic issues that come with any length of blackouts, it's understandable that customers would demand utilities do their one job of keeping power on reliably and without question, and to do otherwise is a failure. 

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