Rolling blackouts that cut power to hundreds of thousands of Californians this weekend during a historic heat wave — even as state officials warned that more outages are likely through Wednesday night — have shocked and angered residents from the Bay Area to Southern California.
But as the state continues its historic shift away from fossil fuels like natural gas that provide consistent power toward cleaner sources like solar and wind energy that rise and fall with the weather and the sun, experts say the power grid has become more difficult to operate and more at risk of blackouts.
There are ways to fix the problem, they note, and still expand renewable energy to reduce air pollution and address climate change.
But the crisis — the first rolling blackouts on California’s power grid since 2001 — has exposed a dangerous vulnerability. Not only are millions of people who are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic inconvenienced, but power shutoffs endanger public health, particularly elderly residents who can fall ill or die from heat stroke.
“We have a much more risky supply of energy now because the sun doesn’t always shine when we want and the wind doesn’t always blow when we want,” said Frank Wolak, a Stanford University economics professor who specializes in energy markets. “We need more tools to manage that risk. We need more insurance against the supply shortfalls.”
Last fall, top officials at California’s power grid operator warned that electricity shortages were likely as soon as 2020 because of the trend.
At a meeting on Sept. 18, 2019 of the governing board of the California Independent System Operator, the non-profit public benefit corporation that runs the state’s power grid, Mark Rothleder, vice president of market quality and state regulatory affairs for the agency, gave a presentation on the coming crisis.
He noted that 33% of the state’s electricity now comes from renewable sources, a requirement for utilities under state law that had been met two years early.
But with large solar farms making up an increasing percentage of California’s power generation, he said, crunch time happens in the late afternoon, particularly on hot days. People turn on air conditioning and other devices around 5 p.m. as the heat peaks and they come home from work. Electricity demand surges, just as the sun is setting and solar power is drying up.
Rothleder said that the ISO, which functions as a kind of air traffic controller for the grid, makes up for that lost solar power by importing electricity from dams and power plants in other Western states, and also by relying on natural gas-fired power plants still operating in California.
But he noted ominously that if there were a big Western heat wave, there probably would not be enough power from other states available to close the gap. He called it “a most urgent issue” that “really needs timely attention.”
“We have made significant progress on the road to our clean energy goals,” he said. “That said, as we look ahead, we do see some challenging things occurring.”
Rothleder recommended that the State Water Resources Control Board delay rules that require at least four older natural gas-fired power plants in Southern California to be shut down because their cooling systems pump billions of gallons of sea water that can kill marine life.
He also recommended expanded battery technology for large solar farms, something the ISO has made progress on, and more energy efficiency.
On Friday as temperatures soared above 100 degrees and hit 110 in some parts of the state, the warnings came true. The ISO ordered utilities like PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric to impose rolling blackouts. ISO officials said two natural gas power plants in California had gone offline, demand for electricity was higher than they expected, and not enough power was available from other states to close the gap.
Roughly 410,000 homes and businesses lost power that evening.
The next night, it happened again. On Saturday, PG&E blacked out 220,000 homes and businesses, mostly in Santa Cruz, Monterey and the Stockton area, after being ordered by the ISO to reduce demand. The heat was again a problem, imports were low, and wind power slumped in the heat.
Then Sunday the ISO issued a four-day “flex alert” asking people to conserve power. “Consumers should be prepared for likely rolling outages during
the late afternoons and early evenings through Wednesday,” it said.
The ISO’s governing board, whose five members are appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, held an emergency meeting Sunday morning to discuss the grid’s stability. But it was closed to the public.
Wolak, of Stanford, said the state should make efforts to keep gas-power plants around until battery storage technology for solar plants can be ramped up.
One long-time industry official agreed.
“Some folks in the environmental community want to shut down all the gas plants. That would be a disaster,” said Jan Smutny Jones, CEO of the Independent Energy Producers Association, a trade association representing solar, wind, geothemal and gas power plants. “Last night 60% of the power in the ISO was being produced by those gas plants. They are your insurance policy to get through heat waves.”
Many of the state’s gas plants have become less competitive because they are more expensive to run than solar, he said. In fact, some have been shutting down on their own because utilities are buying more power from solar and wind.
Jones also said utilities should be required to sign more contracts with generating companies to lock up power to provide a better cushion during heat waves and other events, even if they never use that power. Some utilities have resisted because of the cost.
“Nobody likes to pay for insurance,” he said. “But if you need a heart transplant, or your house burns down, you’re glad you had it.”
Others say the solution lies elsewhere. Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at UC Berkeley, noted that to meet a state law that signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 requiring 100% of California’s energy to come from carbon-free or renewable sources by 2045, there is no room for gas plants.
Of note, he said: 1 million Californians have now put solar panels on their homes. A growing number are installing battery systems, like Tesla’s, which costs about $10,000. More incentives should be offered for those, he said, and laws changed so residential battery power can be sold back to utilities when supplies are tight.
“Solar and wind are the cheapest forms of new energy,” he said. “California’s blackout is due to poor management. It’s not due to a supply problem.”
On top of everything, PG&E announced in 2016 that it will close Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo County, in 2025. The decision, following the Fukushima meltdown in Japan and a costly re-licensing battle, will require the ISO to replace its 2,250 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1.7 million homes.
“I don’t think most people understand the extent to which wind and solar aren’t the same as natural gas and nuclear generation,” Wolak said.
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