Bad Policy, Not Renewables, To Blame For California Blackouts


August 21st, 2020 by  

California is going through hell right now, with massive wildfires raging in many parts of the state. Sparked by lightning strikes, the fires have forced utilities like PG&E to shut off electricity to large segments of the population. Opponents of climate science — particularly the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal — were quick to condemn renewable energy for the blackouts. The theory is the same lame analysis Donald Trump offered to workers in Lima, Ohio last March: “Let’s put up some windmills. When the wind doesn’t blow, just turn off the television darling, please. There’s no wind, please turn off the television quickly.”

The Wall Street Journal said the blackouts are “a warning to the rest of America about the risks of Green New Deal policies.” President Trump repeated that theme Tuesday, tweeting that the “Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”

The only problem is, they are both wrong, according to Stephen Berberich, head of California’s power grid operator. He tells the Los Angeles Times, renewables most definitely are not to blame for the blackouts. Everybody knows the sun goes down and the wind doesn’t always blow. The problem, he says, is that officials throughout the state have failed to assemble the right mix of energy resources.

The solution is not adding more thermal generators that will add even more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which it turn will lead to even more powerful storms. The solution is to create that synergistic mix of resources that will keep the lights on while addressing the challenges of a warming planet. Berberich and other experts tell the LA Times there are 8 things that can be done.

Increased Battery Storage

LS Power Gateway battery. Credit: LS Power

Battery storage is getting cheaper all the time and can help California get over the hump when demand for electricity surges in the late afternoon and early evening. Last year, the state’s public utilities commission directed utility companies to add 3,300 MWh of battery storage. That’s a good start. In fact, LS Energy is in the process of powering up what will be the world’s largest grid scale storage battery — the Gateway battery located in southern California. According to Green Tech Media, Gateway started with a capacity of 62.5 MWh but that is expected to grow to 250 MWh by the end of this month.

In 2019, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found California could get 90% of its electricity from climate friendly resources by 2030 while reducing energy prices, even if the costs of solar power, wind power and batteries don’t decline as quickly as they have in recent years. Doing so would require about 25,000 MWh of batteries, so that 3,300 MWh ordered by the PUC is just a down payment on the future of storage in the Golden State.

More Solar And Wind

“Batteries won’t fix this alone,” Berberich says. “In fact, solar and other renewables will have to be overbuilt to both charge the batteries and serve the load at the same time.”  A 2019 study found that intentionally “overbuilding” the solar fleet — even if some electricity is curtailed when demand is low — may be the best way to keep electricity prices low on a power grid dominated by renewable energy.

Rooftop Solar And Residential Batteries

Rooftop solar and residential battery storage could go a long way toward helping manage California’s energy system by creating a system of virtual power plants. Homes and businesses would sign up for programs in which they agree to discharge their batteries — sending power back to the grid — in exchange for financial compensation. “It takes the Flex Alert and puts it on speed,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Assn. “It’s not just, ‘Turn off your lights and set your thermostat to 78.’ It’s do those things and give us 5 kilowatt-hours from your battery in your garage. And we’ll pay you for it.”

While several utilities are talking about doing similar things in the San Francisco Bay Area, Del Chiaro said big utility companies and state regulators, including the Public Utilities Commission and the Independent System Operator, are biased toward traditional power plants and have mostly failed to embrace the concept. Green Mountain Power in Vermont offers a VPP grid program to its customers using Tesla Powerwall batteries and has found the system more than pays for itself.

Demand Response

Managing demand, sometimes known as smart grid technology, can have a powerful effect on the electrical grid. David Olsen, chair of the Independent System Operator’s board of governors, says “On low-carbon grids, demand will be as important as supply. We’re going to have to be able to manage demand, flexibly, to match the constantly changing output of wind and solar.”

Going forward, experts tell the LA Times, it will be crucial to expand “demand response” programs that automate energy saving measures and pay people to conserve rather than depending on frantic pleas to the public. With the right technology, grid managers could cut huge amounts of demand during peak periods by directing pool pumps, electric vehicles, cooling systems, and other devices to draw power from the grid at different times of day.

Expand The Grid

Some advocate for building new transmission lines to states east of California like New Mexico and Wyoming where large wind farms have an abundance of electrical power available. The Sierra Club of California worries that expanding the grid this way would make California subject to the politics in those other states and would export clean energy jobs from the state.

Proponents of the “big grid” idea say it would reduce the costs of phasing out fossil fuels. T hey argue a single western grid might also make it easier for power managers across the region to coordinate supplies during a heat wave like the one this week without having to scramble to find available resources. “We shouldn’t need to scramble,” says Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The scramble is itself evidence that we continue to suffer from an excessively fragmented system of grid management.”

Keep Nuclear

California has one nuclear power plant in operation, the Diablo Canyon facility in San Luis Obispo which generates 10% of all the state’s electricity. The PUC approved closing it in 2018 but opponents to that plan point out there is not yet a plan for how to replace the electricity from Diablo Canyon with renewables.

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, whose district includes San Luis Obispo, has a bill pending in the Legislature that would require state officials to count nuclear toward California’s target of 60% renewable electricity by 2030. At the present time, nuclear power is not counted as renewable. “We’re experiencing [these blackouts] with Diablo Canyon still operational, producing 10% of our state’s electricity,” Cunningham says. “I can’t imagine what kind of situation we’re going to be in if there’s a heat wave in 2025 when Diablo is offline.”

Geothermal And Offshore Wind

Geothermal energy is more expensive than solar and wind but it has one big advantage — it produces electricity 24 hour a day every day regardless of storms, lightning, or sunspots. Clouds and light winds have no effect on it. There has not been a new geothermal facility built in California in more than 10 years but the recent spate of fires and rolling blackouts has many taking a fresh look at the technology.

Offshore wind is being developed all along the East Coast of the United States from Maine to Virginia, but offshore wind faces different challenges on the West Coast where the shore drops off precipitously into very deep waters. Floating wind is a new technology that is being trialed in many places around the world but it is still in its infancy.

The US Navy objects to offshore wind on the west coast, claiming it will interfere with training exercises. Floating offshore wind’s most attractive feature is that the winds at sea blow stronger and more consistently than they do on land. “Resource diversity is good,” said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association. “Solar and wind together are much more reliable than a solar-heavy portfolio.”

Long Duration Storage

There are other ways to store electricity than batteries. Some of them can last for days or even months, like pumped hydro, the earliest energy storage medium in the world. It requires lots of land and some expensive engineering, which limits where it can be installed. Compressed air storage works much the same way but requires geological conditions that will keep the pressurized air from leaking away before it is needed.

New technologies like flow batteries keep coming available. Who knows what energy storage will look like 10 years from now? The take away from all this is that renewables did not cause this week’s energy blackouts in California any more than they were responsible for outages in South Australia and Victoria a few years ago. The problem then as it is now is weaknesses built into the existing grid. Deal with those structural issues and renewables will be more than capable of shouldering their fair share of the load. 


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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