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Energy Central Community Deep Dive: Massive heat wave causing power demand surge & wildfire risks in the Western U.S. What are you seeing, thinking, and doing?

Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst, Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Aug 18, 2020

Over the past few days, the massive heat waves in the Western United States have caused a surge in power demand while putting certain regions on high alert for wildfires. Both of these issues are further complicated by continued COVID-19 social distancing measures required of utility workers and the atypical supply and demand patterns. 

Given that this topic is such a quickly developing, immensely important, and timely area for utility professionals, we're creating this Q&A to serve as a main hub for discussion on all of these related topics. If you have a question specific to this ongoing news or a specific and targeted item related to it that you'd like to discuss, start a new comment thread by clicking the “answer this question” button below. And if you want to continue a discussion that a fellow community member already started below, press on the “comment on this answer” button below their comment/question to join in on that conversation.

Some starting questions to consider:

  1. What measures do you think utilities should be taking in this instance that you're not yet seeing implemented? 
  2. What lessons can be learned from past summers that need to be taken into consideration in this instance? 
  3. How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the outcomes during this situation as it plays out? 

Matt Chester

Energy Central Community Manager


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    In the wake of the blackouts, I’m mainly concerned with avoiding future ones – and specifically overcoming the barriers to energy storage playing a bigger role in preventing more blackouts and providing more value to the grid overall. California’s recent blackouts weren’t triggered by public safety concerns but rather by a resource shortage that was years in the making; what this incident shows is that CAISO and the utilities need to fully utilize all resources available on the system, including customer-sited solar and storage. Recent analysis commissioned by Stem and solar developer Sunrun found that customer-sited solar and storage could provide roughly 9 GW of capacity in California – about one-fifth of CAISO’s current peak load – to help maintain reliability. But today, most behind the meter (BTM) energy storage systems are only allowed to discharge energy to the specific customer(s) they’re attached to and prevented from sending energy back to the grid (export) even during emergencies. The key lesson is that BTM storage should be allowed to and compensated for exporting energy to the grid. And if California is serious about avoiding future blackouts, it needs to dramatically increase grid connected storage installations. This can be done in two ways: by allowing BTM storage to provide its full suite of potential grid services and compensating it appropriately in wholesale markets; and by accelerating the incorporation of front of meter (FTM) storage in planning, procurement and market design for an ultra-high renewables grid. For interested readers, my blog post on these topics is available here:

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

    Thanks for your insights, Ted.

    Recent analysis commissioned by Stem and solar developer Sunrun found that customer-sited solar and storage could provide roughly 9 GW of capacity in California – about one-fifth of CAISO’s current peak load 

    In this study, is 9 GW the total capacity or the amount that could reasonably be tapped into? I would assume having 9 GW of storage installed doesn't mean you'd actually come close to having 9 GW of stored power ready at a given moment with the assumption that some assets won't be fully charged, some people would choose to reserve as backup power rather than send back to the grid, etc.?

    Ted Ko's picture
    Ted Ko on Sep 23, 2020

    That's an important distinction to make, Matt, but the ultimate answer isn't a simple one. The study looked at the potential total capacity that could be installed behind-the-meter, both residential and non-residential.  How much is available during an emergency event will depend on the whether the right policy / market mechanisms are in place.  If these resources are set to be compensated highly enough for providing emergency capacity and are given sufficient notice, then they'll reserve as much energy as possible.

    If the customer knows they want backup power when they buy the system, the energy storage company will size the battery to provide that backup *and* provide the specified capacity during emergencies. 


    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Sep 24, 2020

    If the customer knows they want backup power when they buy the system, the energy storage company will size the battery to provide that backup *and* provide the specified capacity during emergencies. 

    This is an interesting point. Is the customer paying for that added capacity to accomplish both, though? Let's say it's determined I need a 20 kWh battery for my home-- does that mean the company will then give me a 30-40 kWh battery, and I'd be paying for that larger capacity? I could see some customers being hesitant about that additional upfront cost beyond what they were told they needed, even if selling that additional 10-20 kWh would pay for itself in the long-run. Further, what if I anticipate the outage being a really long one and so I decide I'd rather use the whole 40 kWh to extend the useful time of my backup power system-- is that an option? Or is there some sort of agreement settled ahead of time that prevents me from using that extra capacity how I might like?

    Appreciate your insights, Ted! This is such a rich and interesting topic. 

    As I wrote in a recent article published to Energy Central, perhaps this is motivation to give a more serious look at dynamic pricing:

    Experts from all facets of the industry – ranging from grid operators, utilities, and regulators to academics, researchers, consultants, and private industry -- have opined on the subject. They have proffered the following solutions:

    • Don’t mess with demand, just build more supply
    • Introduce capacity markets in wholesale markets to improve resource adequacy
    • Don’t mess with retail markets, just focus on wholesale markets
    • If you must do something in retail markets, spare the residential customer (even though it was their effort that prevented additional blackouts). Just focus on commercial and industrial customers because residential customers don’t want to be bothered (but it’s apparently OK to bother them totally by cutting off their power).
    • If you have do something with residential customers, do it through curtailments and not through prices because customers don’t respond to prices 

    In other words, these experts are telling us that residential customers can’t and won’t respond to dynamic pricing. And even if they do respond, their response is unpredictable, inconsequential and not worthy of our attention.

    Is that true? Customers encounter dynamic pricing or some version of time-of-use pricing in several walks of life. E.g., the prices of groceries vary seasonally. The prices of airplane tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars vary dynamically. Movie theaters use time-of-use pricing as do some restaurants. Operas and sporting events use dynamic pricing. So price variation by time is not a foreign subject for consumers.


    Why not use dynamic pricing to ride through power shortages? Let customers choose whether they want to pay higher prices when shortages are suddenly encountered or choose not to buy the amount of power they would normally have purchased. Either way, they would be better off than having someone just cut off their entire power.

    Read the full article here

    Hi Matt:

    You received many responses, and I considered not adding mine, but since I'm in the epicenter of the situation and frequently write on this subject, I suppose I really need to comment. First two links:


    The first is a recent post on the initial event that caught CA-ISO unprepared. They can be forgiven, because I have never seen an event like this in 30 years of living in Northern California. Is this something we will see more of with climate change? Be sure to read my follow up comment to this post.

    The second post describes what we are dealing with now - our classical northern high, dry wind event.  This is described about half-way through section 3 (beginning of page 5) of this paper. The good news is that our current event seems to be weak-to moderate. This did not stop PG&E from issuing many public safety power shutoffs (once burned...).

    We are also in the midst of another heat wave. This is not as long as the one described in the first post above, and there are no dying tropical storms that I'm aware of, so it's dying with a whimper (today). CA-ISO's capacity seems to be fine, but they issued a Flex Alert, and the public is responding. 

    Finally, renewables did not cause out problems, we have plenty of dispatchable generation to mitigate their variability. We are also adding many very-large battery energy storage systems in recent and in the next few months (future post).


    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Sep 8, 2020

    Well I'm glad you did decide to chime in, John-- your insights are always so valuable!

    Finally, renewables did not cause out problems, we have plenty of dispatchable generation to mitigate their variability. 

    True as this may be, I worry that at the very least renewables in CA have now been open to easy sound bite attacks by those outside of the utility sector to fully engage with and respond to. From your perspective on the ground in California, what are you seeing and hearing regarding this line of conclusion from those who would like to see the push for renewables push the brakes? 

    Hello All:  As per usual, I have a bit of a different take on this issue.  I do not have an immediate solution to recommend, but I do have a recommendation on two long term solutions that need to be seriously considered.  The overall answer is not to do incremental fix it when it breaks.  It is far past time to fundamentally rethink how we supply electricity across the United States, and for that matter, around the world. Our present problems have illustrated our ongoing problems clearly. It is time for a new approach made possible by our evolving energy technology.

    1) All buildings and homes, in particular, need to add solar on their roof (or even small wind where feasible) and an adequate energy storage system in their garage with a multi-day capability.  These systems could be paid for under a public/private joint venture using a Power Purchase Agreement with ultimate ownership in the hands of the utilities who can perform the necessary O & M responsibilities.  This is the utility company of the future.  There needs to be a comprehensive and national effort to make every building energy self-sufficient. In the process, we would significant reduce the dependence on the grid. The insitutional endowment community (pension funds, higher education, religious groups, etc.) control over $100 trillion in capital that could be invested in such an effort with a rate of return far beyond what they acheive now.

    2) As part of the hoped for upcoming national infrastructure revitalization program, it is time to rebuild the entire national grid and the last mile electrical distribution system to be completely resilient.  Yes, I am talking about under-grounding everything.  We spend billions every time a puff of wind comes through and blows down the power lines, and we expose our national grid to internal and external sabotage by those with evil intent. A fully underground national electrical system would address so many of the issues that result in problems today.  Yes, this will cause trillions of dollars, but that expense will be far cheaper than doing nothing, and we will get reliable, safe, and resilient electrical supply. It will also create 100's of thousands of solid middle class jobs.

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 24, 2020

    Yes, this will cause trillions of dollars, but that expense will be far cheaper than doing nothing, and we will get reliable, safe, and resilient electrical supply. It will also create 100's of thousands of solid middle class jobs.

    Is there any appreciable estimate as to how long such an undertaking would require if we were all in on it?

    Please see attached article LINK that sums things up quite well as it relates to generation. As many of you know our grid is still in need of work. There are many congested transmission lines in California which limit our ability to deliver power from the cleanest and or least expensive sources of generation. SCE is having great success by swaping out ACSR and ACSS conductors with high-capacity, low-sag ACCC Condutcor which helps mitigate congestion and also serving to reduce line losses by roughly 30%. This effectively frees up generation capacity that is otherwise wasted. 

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 24, 2020

    Interesting, Dave-- I've heard many people suggest the issue is the market mechanisms on the grid, but you're suggesting it could be more simply the physical infrastructure of the grid that's falling short and causing these issues? 

    Dave Bryant's picture
    Dave Bryant on Aug 25, 2020

    Thanks Matt. I believe its a combination of all of the above. 

    We seem to have forgotten the importance of base generation in our effort to move to renewables. Batteries (or the like) will certainly help, but there is a huge deficit in the short term. We can't rely on importing power without agreements. Policy needs work. We also have congested lines that aren't capable of delivering more power in some instances. 

    The point I want to make is that improving the capacity AND efficiency of the lines using modern ACCC Conductors is by far the least costly means of delivering more power. Reduced line losses delivers more power and frees up generation capacity otherwise wasted. It also helps us achieve emission reduction objectives. 

    For instance, AEP reconductored two parallel 120 mile 345 kV lines replacing ACSR with ACCC on the original structures. They doubled line capacity to handle peak conditions and improve reliability. They also reduced line losses by 30% saving 300,000 MWh's per year. This is the equivalent of freeing up 34 MW of base load generation or about 75 MW of wind. Based on the average CO2 emissions in Texas, they also reduced CO2 by 200,000 metric tons per year - the equivalent of removing 34,000 cars from the road. The wire for the project was around $34 million. This didn't include substation upgrades and other costs, but the benefits for everyone were sensational. In California, SCE is working on a number of ACCC upgrades which will provide similar benefits.

    As I wrote here, there’s a lot of history here, both nationally and in California. First, the rapid expansion of shale gas drilling and harvesting has taken the price of Henry Hub natural gas, which has historically set the price of electricity, from $19.34 per MMBTU in 2005 to $1.77 in 2016 and around $2.45 currently. Conventional wisdom, now embraced even by many participating industry CEOs is that the IPP model has been handicapped, despite the creation of “YieldCos,” spinoff companies that securitize generation assets and receivables to separate—and insulate—them from other parts of the power business. Yet we still depend largely in FERC-regulated markets on merchant generators.

    And in California, the political climate and environmental activism has also expanded renewable generation significantly, while not sufficiently backing up utility-scale wind and solar with fast-ramping gas generation, as it’s been done in other states. The closing of the San Onofre nuclear plant, several plants that use once-through cooling, and the denial by the California Energy Commission to site, build and operate new peaking plants contributed to the insufficient power supply on the weekend of August 14 and 15.  

    See the rest of my thoughts in this full article: 


    It may be said that some of the worst impacts of this situation came from a lack of proper preparation. As I wrote in a recently submitted article to Energy Central:

    CAISO was aware of the heat wave and began planning – but for a number of reasons now under investigation – it failed to have sufficient resources to meet the load. Temperatures turned out to be hotter than expected, cloud cover in the desert – where the bulk of the utility-scale solar power plants are – reduced solar generation. Making matters worse, neighboring Western states were also impacted by the same heat wave with little surplus power to sell. On top of it all, it didn’t get much cooler after the sunset, which meant that AC units were running into the night when there is no solar output. It was the perfect storm. 
    A visibly annoyed Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged that the state had failed to predict and plan for the energy shortages. He said, “I am not pleased with what’s happened," adding, "You shouldn’t be pleased with the moment that we’re in in the state of California,” adding that he would ask the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the CAISO to investigate. 
    “These blackouts … are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state. This cannot stand. California residents and businesses deserve better from their government.”

    The rest of my thoughts can be read here in the full article.  

    I shared a recent link on this topic on Energy Central here:

    My takeaway is that the collision of politics and reality is playing out in California. Killing nuclear generation and depending on solar and wind looks like it is leading to disaster for California citizens.

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

    "My takeaway is that the collision of politics and reality is playing out in California. Killing nuclear generation and depending on solar and wind looks like it is leading to disaster for California citizens."

    Thank you, Mary. It looks very much that way to me, too.

    There is a very sightful article available analyzing the root cause of the CA blackouts that I highly recommend:

    This is precisely why the wholesale markets need to replace "plain old capacity" purchases with essential grid services at granular durations and locations using an always on  capacity exchange (AOCE) approach.

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

    Richard, Dov is correct in that California's ramping capacity was stretched to its limits last Friday, but he's mistaken if he believes the root cause had anything to do with "market failures." Yes, imports were unavailable when they were needed most, but when CAISO called its Stage 3 alert there was no electricity, at any price, available for import. Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon had exactly the same problem we did, and their priorities were where they should be: providing electricity for their own residents.

    Last Friday proved California is too dependent on the imports that make up a full third of our electricity. It wasn't a market failure, it was a policy failure - the attempt to outsource our carbon emissions to other states, to meet a 2020 emissions goal we were in danger of missing, left us with our electricity pants down when the curtain went up.

    Friday's blackouts were all in Southern California Edison's service area, where 132,000 customers were without power at one time or another. Both CAISO and Edison are coming up with some novel excuses for what happened. For instance: CAISO contends there were

    "...other issues that led to the shortage, including the loss of over 400 MW from a large gas power plant that tripped offline..."

    Though nuclear plants, in rare instances, can "trip offline", the idea a 400 MW gas plant "tripped" offline is amusing. What happened was what happens every summer since San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down in 2012 - Southern California Gas couldn't squeeze enough gas through their aging transmission infrastructure, and this time, two gas plants simply ran out of gas. The sound it made wasn't a "CLANK", or a "KER-CHUNK!", but more like "pfffft".

    SC Gas had recognized the problem as soon as SONGS shut down: how can we get gas piped in fast enough to meet peak demand? One theory was to stuff local reservoirs with gas to have it at the ready. So when extremely hot weather was predicted for September 2015, the company filled Aliso Canyon Reservoir, north of Los Angeles, to the brim with gas. Problem was, they filled it with a little too much gas. When a feeder pipe blew out, the underground hole it left couldn't be fixed for months, resulting in the release of 55,000 tons of methane. It was the worst natural gas leak in U.S. history.

    In September 2017, when several days of three-digit temperatures brought California to the brink of blackouts, CAISO managed to keep a lid on things by pronouncing Flex Alerts every few hours.

    Californians have become far too comfortable with easy electricity. For too long, it seems, they thought wind turbines and solar panels could fill up the wires with electricity to be at their service whenever it was needed. Maybe now they're starting to get an appreciation for the value of a steady supply of baseload electricity, and when there are more blackouts in September, maybe they'll even take a second look at Diablo Canyon Power Plant. If that's what it takes, I can't wait.

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

    Thanks for the link, Dick-- very insightful. It's interesting to see the  technical explanation behind what happened. The situation definitely seems nuanced and hard for non-utility people to understand, which is why you're seeing a lot of takes about 'well it's because there's too much solar in CA.' This article highlights how the penetration of renewable certainly raises some challenges but ones that CA can/should readily be able to handle and that well planned market-based tools can address those issues in a way that allows renewable energy penetration to grow without sacrificing reliability. 

    I'll echo Dov's parting sentiment of confidence that the intelligent folks at CAISO will be able to figure this out. 

    Richard Brooks's picture
    Richard Brooks on Aug 21, 2020

    I find Dov's explanation for causation to be plausible. He suggests that CAISO's failure to pass its own Flex Ramp Sufficiency Test restricted imports, that were very much needed to avoid blackouts.  Unintended consequences of bad market rule design, I suppose. I've seen other cases of unintended consequences resulting from market rule decisions: "“Sometimes, what works beautifully in economic theory, you learn—sometimes a little late—doesn’t quite work that way in practice,” Matt White, ISO New England. I highly recommend watching Matt's very insightful presentation at:

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

    Hopefully all stakeholders involved will learn the lessons that need to be learned to correct these unintended consequences. Fool me once, shame you you. Fool me twice, though...

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

    Again Richard - it has nothing to do with economics, it has to do with dependency on electricity imports,  and the naïve notion one state's reliability and environmental priorities can be met with electricity from another.

    We're dependent on electricity imports due to in-state gas bottlenecks. Southern California Gas is working tirelessly, at this moment, to shift from one northbound gas main to another, older one - one that crosses the San Andreas Fault underground, and will split when the fault ruptures in coming years. Why are they making the switch? Because it has twice the capacity, and until capacity constraints are relieved, blackouts will only become more common.

    Reliance on imports has dire implications for the environment, too. Given up to 40% of Edison's electricity comes from "unspecified sources", we have no idea whether Edison is buying solar energy from Topaz or coal energy from Wyoming. If it's solar energy from Topaz, Edison would certainly want to acknowledge it, though - that's how they meet their emissions quota. Thus it's assuredly dirty energy, and under California law Edison isn't required to reveal from where it came.

    So as things stand, it's impossible to know whether California is meeting its emissions goals, as it claims, or whether the lights will go out next time we have hot weather. That's in the hands of Arizona. or Nevada, or Oregon, or Utah, or Wyoming. Or "all of the above". 

    Great questions Matt... What am I seeing, thinking, doing? I'm living and breathing microgrids! 


    California continues to be on the wrong side of energy policy history. The CPUC has a chance to revolutionize the power sector with the open rulemaking on microgrids and instead of proposing bold action to commercialize the market, our regulators are paralyzed with fear of "cost shifting" and completely ignoring the plethora of benefits and opportunities for ratepayer savings that will come with widescale deployment of mcirogrids. The current proposals are a timid toe in the water when we need to unleash the power of California innovation and technological advancement. 

    I see microgrids as the solution to many many of our problems. Environmental, economic and societal. I see microgrids as having a triple bottom line effect on all communities, and especially in California with our severe reliability and resiliency issues stemming from PSPS events, wildfires and now rolling blackouts. 


    "As if we didn’t have already enough reasons to commercialize microgrids…" 


    Educating policymakers on all the benefits that microgrids can provide us, especially during these unprecedented and historic times. 

    -Microgrids can provide capacity to the grid when it is needed most

    -Microgrids can reduce strain on the grid by supplying customers with their own capacity and load shed during a shortfall. This reduces the overall capacity needed to maintain reliability and less power needing to be purchased at high rates from out of state resources that are often not clean, which results in lower costs for ALL customers. 

    -Microgrids provide resiliency so customers do not suffer the immense costs of power outages which are further compounded during the Pandemic. The value of lost load for Californians is estimated to be $160-320 per day. That is for residential customers. C&I customers face significantly higher costs with more severe consequences for their business and the economy that usually go unquantified. ​​


    How many more lives and billions of dollars in losses is it going to take for California to make bold, sweeping changes for the better? The power has gone out, California policymakers. What are you going to do to help your constituents? Are you going to continue the status quo, at the expense of many more dollars and lives? Or are you going to be on the right side of energy policy history this time? 

    Commercialize microgrids with bold action. We are in an emergency. It's time policymakers start acting like it. 

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 20, 2020

    Thanks for the detailed response, Allie. I definitely think microgrids are a part of the solution, in the near-term and long-term.

    Environmental, economic and societal. I see microgrids as having a triple bottom line effect on all communities, and especially in California with our severe reliability and resiliency issues stemming from PSPS events, wildfires and now rolling blackouts. 

    Once question on this-- are there any concerns about equity/access to microgrids? Will they be rolled up on more affluent neighborhoods early on and end up (at least at first) restricting blackouts to more disadvantaged communities? Or will the roll out more likely be even across the state?

    Allie Detrio's picture
    Allie Detrio on Aug 21, 2020

    Equal access with an equity focus... I think if the tariffs and rate schedules are designed properly then microgrids will be built widely across the state. 

    To prioritize equity... My idea is that there is a richer public benefit payment developed within the tariff that equity customers and public agencies qualify for. Or else these customers should be given some support with interconnection costs, which can add significant capital cost to the project. That will incentivize the market to prioritize those customers. 

    Everyone deserves to have reliable power. The government should provide opportunities for customers to help themselves and give additional need-based support as appropriate. I do not think we should only help equity customers though. Maybe some of the general market customers will get built faster, maybe they won't. The goal should be that we build microgrids widely so that everyone benefits from the energy savings and resiliency that microgrids can provide. 

    The situation in California underscores the need for energy diversity and for baseload energy.  When coupled with clean energy priorities, nuclear energy has to be a key element of the mix (not to the exclusion of renewables), but both Germany and California show the shortcomings of a heavy move away from nuclear energy.  The facts cannot be ignored.

    By balancing the portfolio with a variety of clean energy technologies, multiple goals can be achieved.  But an 100% renewables strategy simply cannot work in a large, industrialized economy.  Baseload is needed.  Intermittency must be considered, as well as the total system costs of electricity.  Without taking a complete look at these issues, energy security is compromised.

    Addressing climate change is important, but it cannot ignore the realities of electricity generation and grid management.  For a large portion of the environmental community to ignore the benefits of nuclear does a disservice to climate change efforts and efforts to have clean growth strategies.

    Bob Meinetz's picture
    Bob Meinetz on Aug 20, 2020

    "For a large portion of the environmental community to ignore the benefits of nuclear does a disservice to climate change efforts and efforts to have clean growth strategies."

    Couldn't have said it better myself, Paul.

    Some are confusing the Public Safety Power Shutoffs of 2019 with recent rolling blackouts. The first were voluntary shutoffs to reduce the possibility of wildfire liability for California utilities, the second were (and are) the result of insufficient baseload electricity to support increasing demand, as solar power fades in the late afternoon, on one of the hottest days of the year.

    In July 2006 consumer demand in California hit a new record of just over 50,000 MW without incident. Last Friday demand reached only 48,000, yet resulted in blackouts for millions of PG&E customers. Why?

    The answer isn't nearly as complicated as some believe: the premature shutdown of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, in 2013, left CAISO's supply of predictable baseload electricity 2,100 MW short.

    Will the scheduled shutdown of Diablo Canyon make matters worse? You bet. As I've posted here many times before, it would take blackouts to get Californians to appreciate the value of non-intermittent electricity. Tragically there are more on the way in September, but even more tragic would be failing to learn from our mistake and allow Diablo Canyon to close.

    James Kirby's picture
    James Kirby on Aug 20, 2020

    Paul is correct in my opinion. Nuclear power is an important part of a clean energy mix.

    Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 21st century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity.  This fact coupled with the retirements of base load coal and nuclear plants and new renewable generation being placed miles away from urban load centers we have the perfect storm.  Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.

    Click here to learn more about America's report card on energy.  


    This moment is yet another call to action for regulators - the energy landscape has changed, and now the rules must change...but like...for real. As is laid out by MIT's Technology Review in this article, this issue could be solved with existing technology like voluntary demand response:

    How infuriating is this to those of you in California? The problem could be solved as simply as providing an unconstrained incentive for people to proverbially "turn the lights out and the AC down a few degrees" and there would be no need for rolling blackouts. Scheduled outages for unnecessary C&I processes alone could save billions of dollars and the lives of vulnerable human beings. It's not hyperbole - it's real! And what's more, the solution I'm recommending is free-market based. Should be a no-brainer.

    I'd start the discussion under one mantra:

    ALL resources should be adequately compensated for the value that they could offer the grid.

    The DER Task Force lays out the tenants of what that might look like as a part of Connecticut's current Grid Mod proceedings, here:


    I think we're all looking for opportunities to improve the landscape, and I know this is a *charged* bring your best tire-kicking shoes. Let's find a real solution here.

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

    "The problem could be solved as simply as providing an unconstrained incentive for people to proverbially "turn the lights out and the AC down a few degrees" and there would be no need for rolling blackouts."

    Kyle, no problem is solved by blaming the inability of utilities to provide sufficient clean energy on consumers - "The problem isn't that we're failing to provide sufficient electricity. The problem is you're using too much!"

    "The energy landscape has changed..."

    The fundamentals of the energy landscape haven't changed at all.

    One hundred years ago, monopoly utilities exploited captive ratepayers by influencing regulators with bribes; they raised rates indiscriminately, affording electricity only to the wealthiest in society; they pulled the plug on anyone who couldn't pay. Utilities fought over transmission corridors and neglected maintenance; outages and fires were common.

    Sound familiar?

    FDR put a stop to it with the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935;  the Act was repealed in 2005. Today, denying the fiction any competitive "market" exists in electricity, and responsible regulation of electricity monopolies, are the only parts that are missing.

    A few pieces of insight: 


    • Utilities need an economic model that will allow them to accelerate/increase investment in energy efficiency. It’s essential for decarbonization because it’s going to be difficult to get there with RE + storage alone for a reasonable time and money.
    • Somewhere in this conversation, the connection isn’t being made between why we are aggressively deploying renewable energy and the record heat that we are seeing. It hit 130 F in California!
    • The US needs a more coordinated policy on transmission planning so that when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing somewhere, we can tap into power where it is. The US should leverage its expansive geography. Something that isn’t as practical in other regions.

    Hi Matt, 

    Great question. Over the past year, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) chartered the Vehicle-Grid Integration (VGI) working group to address electric vehicle managed charging. The VGI working group submitted a large number of technical and policy recommendations for the CPUC to consider that addressed not only minimizing grid impacts, but even better, helping to enhance and stabilize the California grid. Some of those technical and policy recommendations had to do with renewables penetration, while others had to do with wildfires and the Power Safety Power Shutoff, or PSPS program. Future use of EVs via managed charging can greatly minimize the impacts of a PSPS event by providing local power when the utility must shut down power to a community due to a wildfire. About 80 experts from a variety of interests (utilities, OEMs, vendors, NGOs, etc.) participated in the VGI working group from July 2019 to June 2020. The final report (June 2020) is available from CPUC.

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 19, 2020

    It's definitely interesting to think how EVs on the grid could become an asset and not a liability to this type of issue. Is there an optimal level of EV penetration that would be ideal for such VGI solutions? Or at least a tipping point at which there are enough cars plugged in to really make a difference? 

    Charles Botsford, PE's picture
    Charles Botsford, PE on Aug 20, 2020

    Hi Matt,

    Yes, you're right. The whole idea of California's VGI Working Group was to provide the CPUC technical and policy recommendations that would enable EVs to become a grid asset in many ways -- demand response to solve rolling blackouts, PSPS mitigation via local VGI, peak shaving, peak shifting and other services for renewables penetration, and many other ways of enhancing the grid. 

    Currently, California has ~600,000 EVs -- that's a lot of energy storage sitting in someone's garage, fleets, or at the workplace. It's cheap to the ratepayer and taxpayer, unlike stationary utility-scale energy storage, which is very expensive (and you and I have to pay for it). However, regulations need to be put in place, hence the action needed by CPUC and standards organizations (SAE, IEEE, etc.). California utility pilot programs (SCE, SDG&E, and PG&E) over the last few years have demonstrated the capabilities of managed EV charging for grid services. It's just a matter of implementing the technology at scale.

    As to your question about tipping point, we have enough EVs now in California to make a difference. We need the regulations and markets to catch up.

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 20, 2020

    That's 600,000 EVs out there-- do you think that's more or less 600,000 EV owners who would be willing to participate? I've heard some express concern about adding extra cycles to their batteries which could potentially reduce the usable lifetime of those batteries (such a large part of EV costs). Would the incentives be worth it in the end to these consumers? 

    Charles Botsford, PE's picture
    Charles Botsford, PE on Aug 21, 2020

    Hi Matt, 

    Many EV drivers are of the "don't you touch my EV" mindset, especially with the notion of V2G, which means they'll opt out of V2G programs. They may even opt out of V1G programs, though the reasons wouldn't be technical. Mostly the data show that V2G doesn't mess with the battery because the algorithms would keep the SOC range pretty small. The dollar value is relatively high to the EV driver.

    But that's V2G. The predominant bulk value to the grid can be had with V1G, which has no battery issues and no round trip efficiency losses, but can still do frequency regulation and many other grid services, including excellent value for renewables firming --- at a fraction of the cost of stationary utility-scale energy storage.

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

    Ah thanks for the clarification, my mind went straight to V2G but you're right-- V1G is what's in play here and it's a lot easier & more beneficial for the common EV driver. 

    Jim Stack's picture
    Jim Stack on Aug 25, 2020

    Yes 80% of EV driver charge Off Peak with special EV rates. That helps everyone. Also I find that 50% of EV drivers also have Solar on their homes. Many are now also adding Battery storage like the Tesla Power Wall. It all adds up. Given the right incentives and tarrifs and most people will and can respond well.  

    The New Lucid Air EV being produced in Casa Grange AZ has V2G and V2V built into it charging system. It also have 100 kWh of battery power. The new batteries are all said to last 1 million miles so many won't be converned abouit a few kWh for V2G if they get compensated for it. 

    I worked at Telephone Central Offices fo many years. They all had huge battery banks and generators. One company would sign up all the Telephone Central Offices, Hospitals, data centers and pay them for helping unload the GRID by running their generators in times of need. Since most ran them for an hour or so a week to test them it paid off for both them and the GRID.  In many cities that can be a large load. 

    In my own opinion (not speaking on behalf of my employer BPA)  this is a direct result of the push to replace fossil fueled generation sources with renewable energy. I’m assuming that just like here in WA/OR, California also has an energy policy that gives preference to renewable generation sources. (Environmental regulations are the driver behind the policy, but that’s just a scapegoat) Therein lies the problem; If 50- 100% of the time, some of these fossil fuel generators are offline due to renewables having preference, then they aren’t making money. Therefore they can’t pay for maintenance costs, capital projects, etc. So they instead are essentially forced to shut down or mothball their extra generators, or close the entire plant down completely. 


    Policy makers that make these policies either blatantly ignore the facts or don’t choose to learn. There are many historical graphs that show when the ambient temperatures are at the extreme (hot or cold) and therefore the demand for power is highest, wind power dies off dramatically. And of course solar has its own set of “unreliable” characteristics, frequency response issues, and a plethora of other problems it presents to the grid. See my attached graph (this is our (BPA’s) Balancing Authority area), so not California, but it doesn’t matter, it shows what I’m saying and you can find all sorts of statistics specifically for CA. 


    Point is; California has backed themselves into this corner of not enough generation supply for the peak demand, by encouraging relatively unreliable renewable sources and “shutting down” ultra reliable fossil fueled generation sources. These rolling blackouts should be a huge eye opener. If the “push” continues to go to all renewable sources, this kind of thing will become the norm.

    Paul Korzeniowski's picture
    Paul Korzeniowski on Aug 21, 2020

    Good points. While renewables are gaining traction for a lot of good reasons, they, like most things, have limitations. If the goal is to provide consumers and businesses with energy as inexpensively and consistently as possible, then such limtiations need to be acknowledged and accounted for in planning for events like this one. Those who ignore them do so at their own and their customers' peril. 

    William Conlon's picture
    William Conlon on Aug 25, 2020

    For whatever reason (historical, technical, political) CAISO's summer forecast assumed far more imports would be available than actually showed up.  So the capacity shortfall is real, and not directly related to renewables (indirectly by policy that caused coincident fossil retirement perhaps). 

    I believe the best path forward is hybrid integration of thermal energy storage (eg. molten salt) with thermal generation (eg. gas turbines) in Liquid Salt Combined Cycles™ that add low-carbon capacity, and can absorb and time shift GWh of renewables -- all at a fraction of the incremental cost of battieries.  See my article in December 2019 POWER Magazine, Decarbonizing with Energy Storage Combined Cycles, and my op-ed in PV Magazine, or Pintail Power's web site.


    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 25, 2020

    If anything, I would think that the reliance on imports as a solution should always be considered short-term-- obviously when regional challenges like extreme weather come, they won't care about artificial map borders and can affect equally generation from those neighbors. Energy storage capacity that can be contained and controlled locally does sound appealing-- thanks for sharing your links, William! 

    The COVID-19 pandemic is a government-mandated shutdown of some commercial business operations and a reduction in others' operations. The results are lower energy demand in the commercial sector and a slight increase in energy demand in the residential sector. The net effect is reduced overall electricity demand and reduced overall peak electricity demand. In Los Angeles, the heatwaves are a few degrees hotter this August than they were in August 2018, and peak demand is cumulatively lower this August than it was in August 2018 -- because of COVID-19 policies. At a glance, we might expect to see fewer outages this year than in 2018; however, customer loads are not evenly allocated in circuits across the distribution network. Some circuits are more likely to have both higher economic-based usage and higher weather-based usage, which means higher outage probabilities on those circuits. Nevertheless, if it weren't for the COVID-19 reductions in demand, we would probably be experiencing more outages overall.

    In their 2019 Integrated Energy Policy Report, the California Energy Commission published a map of substation vulnerabilities to heatwaves throughout Los Angeles County based on recent advancements in research and development. The study cited used residential and commercial sector demand patterns from before the COVID-19 pandemic. Utilities should be implementing some version of this new AI software that will make good use of new high-resolution data available for more reliable operations and better grid resilience.

    Daniel Burillo's picture
    Daniel Burillo on Aug 19, 2020

    Full disclosure: I wrote the AI software and the research report mentioned above.

    Beyond that, we should be siting distributed energy resources in a more strategic manner that improves grid reliability and relieves congestion. We should also be making a more concerted effort to invest in clean fossil fuels, including micro-nuclear. 

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 19, 2020

    I've definitely seen lots of agreement that the situation could have been worse were demand patterns not altered due to the pandemic, but that only leads to the question: why are they still so bad? Why haven't past years of high demand (not to mention fall out from wildfires and public safety power shutoffs) better prepared the California grid for just such a situation?

    Daniel Burillo's picture
    Daniel Burillo on Aug 19, 2020

    Short answer: politics.
    Long answer: we would have to define all of the terms in the question first.

    I wrote on the topic of how the transmission lines are threatening Northern California during this crisis for Energy Central recently. See the full post here, and copied here is a key excerpt:

    But PG&E, the embattled utility that was found responsible for all but one of the fires that October, has buttressed their transmission system to ensure this doesn’t happen again, right? Sort of. They have made some relatively low-cost, low-intrusion changes to mitigate fires since 2017: Synchrophasers come to mind. But the comprehensive changes needed to protect Northern Californians are a distant dream. And so here we are yet again, biting our nails as temperatures in Sonoma flirt with the three digit mark.

    Making matters worse, residents of the region need electricity more than ever because of Covid-19. They aren’t going to their offices that may have micro-grids or generators. So if power is out, so are their jobs. 


    Living in Northern California, I can say that the single most important measure that is not addressed adequately with respect to wildfire management is vegetation management in and around power lines. Living in a suburban neghborhood, I can walk 1 mile in any direction and find power lines running through or very close to trees.  The situation must be far worse in foothills, mountains, and other wooded terrain.  PG&E needs to put greater effort toward this measure.  Past fire seasons tell us what happens when the vegetation around power lines are poorly or not maintained.  PG&E ended up in bankruptcy court as a result.  PG&Es bankruptcy combined with the fianancial impacts from COVID19 make this a dangerous situation.   I would welcome any comments on this situation.


    Bill Buchan, P.E.

    Matt Chester's picture
    Matt Chester on Aug 18, 2020

    That's pretty mindblowing to hear considering what PG&E has endured over the past few years. What do you think is the reason that vegetation management still isn't getting done-- is it simply a lack of resources or is something deeper at play here? 

    Blake Mendez's picture
    Blake Mendez on Aug 19, 2020

    My utility experience is that activity is not something that can be rate-based, like O&M.  It just does not get done because there is no incentive or budget behind it.  I doubt that that is being put together in senior management since the centralized grid system is monopolistic. 

    William Buchan's picture
    William Buchan on Aug 20, 2020

    Matt and Blake, I believe Blake is correct.  PG&Es case is somewhat unique though, as the high level of scrutiny this issue has with CPUC and the bankruptcy court.  Still, not enough action...Bill Buchan, P.E.

    Denise Kuehn's picture
    Denise Kuehn on Aug 26, 2020

    I do remember over the years, the utility was trying to balance many factors which had opposing interactions: supplying a growing 24/7 electrical demand as more people and companies moved to CA while many wanted to replace baseload generation with more intermittent renewables which did not align perfectly with the usage; concerns by some that tree trimming negatively impacted habitation and to reduce the trimming cycle; keeping O&M costs and subsequent rates down even though their costs were increasing due to stranded power plant assets, decommissioning costs, renewable power purchase agreements, new AMI technology, expectation to outsource 50% customer programs, increased regulations and more low income programs as well as settlements from past fires. CA has influenced adjoining states to also reduce their baseload resulting in less surplus energy. For years, Nevada utilities sold baseload generated power to CA to offset shortages.

    As more of the results of these initiatives intersected, the challenges of not enough power to serve the load, lack of frequent tree trimming and inability to balance the substantial cost increases with the goal of reasonable rates has CA in a quandary.

    Peter Key's picture
    Peter Key on Aug 21, 2020

    A story published three days ago by FRONTLINE and KQED found that PG&E spent years battling proposals meant to reduce the number of fires caused by its equipment because they were too expensive.

    For example, in a 2010 filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E said that reporting every fire its equipment caused would impose an "unnecessary cost." The next year, its attorneys wrote that “PG&E does not agree that it is necessary to require a formal plan specific to fire prevention.” And PG&E argued for years that it shouldn't be held to the same standards as Southern California utilities because they had a greater wind-driven fire risk than it did.

    That's corporate culture. And based on what William Buchan wrote, it sounds as though PG&E's corporate culture hasn't changed.

    The story makes it clear that the CPUC is to blame, too. From 2008 to 2018, it didn't have a staff member specializing in fire prevention, even though it was writing regulations meant to reduce utility-caused fires.

    Agreed with others who note that there is blame being passed around. Here's an excerpt from a recent article I wrote on the topic for Energy Central:

    From northern Montana to southern California, some 56 million people are under excessive heat warnings or heat advisories.  Utilities are asking customers to conserve energy as they battle high temperatures.  Sacramento, California, saw its hottest August day on record Sunday, of 112 degrees. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Phoenix and Salt Lake City all broke daily temperature records, some as high as 115 degrees. California Independent System Operator (ISO) Chair Steve Berberich said "it is near certain" that utilities will have to cut off power to "millions" of people this week.  However, Gov. Gavin Newsom is investigating that action, saying, “Residents, communities and other governmental organizations did not receive sufficient warning that these de-energizations could occur. Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians. This cannot stand.”

    Full article text

    James Kirby's picture
    James Kirby on Aug 18, 2020

    What measure would the governor have them take? Presumably, imports from other utilities are being already maxed out. It may be better to choose loads that will be cut rather than rotate load cuts, which increases damage. Close suitable customers early. Of course, these customers would have to have loads higher than any load increase that might occur when their employes got home.

    What is the governor going to do - rent bicycle generators for the regulators? If you want it there when you need it you have to have it there when you don't.

     Goes back to planning. Too much capacity better than too little. Getting caught with insufficient capacity has significant social costs. I used to do this for living. The joker is wild. Black Swans exist. Plugging numbers into computer programs is inadequate when the numbers do not recognize this. You can still get caught even if they do. People will complain when there are no contingencies and you have too much but are silent when it is needed. Take moment to sympathize with the guy stuck with estimating how much is needed. Is anybody responsible for adequacy? How is this handled?

    To the extent that a lack of air conditioning drives people to crowded beaches or other areas where it is cooler, it may increase the spread of this virus. It may hinder social distancing and because wearing a mask is uncomfortable some people will not wear one. Cooling centers may have reduced capacity due to respecting recommendations on social distancing. This could add to this concern.

    1. Rotating Load cuts increase the damage and affect some people greatly - for example the elderly. Would it be better to close some, or even many,  businesses and offices early? That way you select people who might experience the least damage. 
    2. This is an instance where reliability interacts with the pandemic. 
      1. The coronavirus is forcing some people to stay indoors where a lack of airconditioning could be more serious
      2. If loads are cuts in certain mostly poorer districts advice to "find a tree" is useless
    3. Generation Fails. That cannot be cited as a reason for this. Reliability analysis should consider load forecasting errors if it does not. The consideration should look at the records of forecasting errors over history.
    4. The following chart shows that renewable energy output dropped from 13000 Mw to 3000 MW on Aug 14 a drop of 10000 MW.  I do not have to loads to see what the net loss was.Drop in Renewable output.
    5. I have been told that the incentives for solar panels encourage a placement maximizing output during the noon hours and that a more west-facing placement for some of the panels would spread the output out, lowering the peak capacity and shifting some of the power to times where this problem is occurring. Careful calculations would be needed to optimize this. Has this been done?
    6. For greenhouse gas emissions the focus should be on retention of baseload non-fossil resources. Gas-fired peaking resources have a relatively low energy output and would not add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions but would improve reliability..
    7. Not all of the consequences of load cuts are quantifiable.
    8. It should be born in mind that the costs of having too little reserve likely exceed the costs of having 'too much' reserve.
    Paul Chernick's picture
    Paul Chernick on Aug 21, 2020


    The CAISO web site ( shows a drop in renewables from about 8,200 MW at the peak load hour (1700) to about 2,700 MW at the net peak hour (1900). So it was a drop of about 5,600 MW. The gross peak was about 46,800 MW, the net peak about 42,100, so the renewables dropped the peak about 4,700 MW.

    I'm not sure why you think that rotating cuts are worse than long-term outages. If your power is out for an hour, the food in your fridge should be okay; maybe not after an outage of 4 or 5 hours.


    James Kirby's picture
    James Kirby on Oct 13, 2020

    You choose the loads to cut. For example, say, less vulnerable industries or office towers. Send the staff home and close before the problem happens.

    When the cuts are rotated it increases the customers incurring costs and would include customers who are vulnerable. Traffic jams, ambulances stuck in traffic, elderly, computers, etc. In the case of computers a one-minute outage that is unanticipated causes the damage. UPS may mitigate some of it.


    Paul, why am I wrong? I would like to know. This is a question, not a statement.

    A key question in this situation is figuring out the causes and who might be to blame. Yesterday utilities blamed regulators in California for not allowing them to secure additional supply. Some argued this is a staged show to save 3 gas power plants slated to be closed and yet some blamed government policies with call for recalling California Governor Gavin Newsom.

    But what is the root cause and can this mess be fixed?

    Here are my take (with more details included in my full post to Energy Central on the topic)

    1. Most of the green enthusiast have no formal background in electrical engineering and physical characteristics of the grid.  You can not re-purpose a ship to make a sleek car!

    2. Chronic shortage of man power, let aside talented, utilities are far short of man power who can actually work in the field and maintain network. 

    3. Unbiased assessment of the real value delivered by Solar and wind to the grid and what part of the grid don't have alternatives yet. 

    4. Decouple utility planning from O&M

    5. Decentralize grid

    6. Social and behaviors need to change. 

    Blake Mendez's picture
    Blake Mendez on Aug 18, 2020

    Can you elaborate more on decoupling O&M costs from long-term utility capital planning?  Capital business units and utilities obsess over O&M and underemphasize routine maintenance spend since no one wants to touch those budgets.  It is often a negative psychological event for utility managers to spend O&M dollars and explain it to senior management. 

    Capital investments will generally always require some maintenance and functional oversight.  Who do you propose picking up that O&M tab? 

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