Calif. issues review of ‘extraordinary’ August blackouts

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 14, 2021

Following rolling blackouts last summer, California needs long-term planning to ensure the lights stay on as climate change brings record high temperatures and electricity demand surges, a state report said yesterday.

A “modernized, integrated approach” is needed for forecasting demand and planning for enough energy resources and standby power past 2025, said the report from the California Energy Commission; California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC); and California Independent System Operator, which manages the bulk of the Golden State’s grid.

The conclusion came in a final analysis of what led to rolling blackouts last Aug. 14 and 15, when power demand exceeded supplies amid what the report called “an extraordinary situation.” The ISO ordered the blackouts to keep the grid from crashing during a scorching heat wave.

Agencies are planning to “more fully anticipate events like last summer’s climate change-induced extreme heat wave,” the report said, and improve coordination as the nation’s most populous state moves toward its goal of 100% clean electricity by 2045.

“This is a statewide concern that requires assessing resource sufficiency and reliability for all of California,” it added.

Previous analyses concluded the state failed to plan for power demand after sunset, when solar is no longer available and demand increases as people return home from work, the report said.

“Resource planning targets have not kept pace to ensure sufficient resources that can be relied upon to meet demand in the early evening hours,” the new analysis said. “This made balancing demand and supply more challenging during the extreme heat wave.”

The heat wave also hit other Western states, limiting how much power California could import.

CPUC has started a process to get more electricity resources during peak demand times this summer and in 2022. The agency directed the state’s three investor-owned utilities to obtain more electricity supplies. The regulator also wants more demand-side resources for times when solar production is very low or zero. That can mean utility contracts with businesses that are willing to cut their power when asked.

The state is also looking at requirements for “resource adequacy” or standby power. That traditionally has come from natural gas plants that don’t run all the time but are paid to remain available for emergencies.

Batteries, pumped hydro coming online

The state needs to take swift action on needed changes to its energy mix, said Patrick Sinclair, executive director of the California Alliance for Renewable Energy Solutions. He said he admires the government’s ability to analyze and identify its problems.

But “solving those problems requires a big leap, to authorize a large project or to change an institution in a way that meets the climate change needs that the state has set as a priority,” he said.

It takes several years to get energy projects approved and built, Sinclair said. He supports adding more pumped hydro storage, like the Eagle Mountain project about 60 miles east of Palm Springs. Located on the site of an abandoned iron ore mine, it has two pits at different elevations with a tunnel in between. During the day, the project pumps water uphill from the lower pit to the higher one, using solar energy. Then at night, it can release up to 1,300 megawatts of pumped hydro, he said.

That storage can keep the lights on in a million homes, Sinclair said, and avoid having natural gas “peaker plants” in disadvantaged communities.

A significant amount of new battery storage is coming on the system, and the grid manager is working with suppliers to ensure its efficient and reliable operation, the report said.

“They are all in, 100%, gung-ho, full steam ahead on batteries,” said Andy DeVries, senior utilities analyst at CreditSights Inc. “That’s going to be the real solution to this, is battery storage.”

The state fell short about 1 gigawatt of power during the August 2020 crisis. The imbalance lasted about eight hours and happened again the next day, he said. Batteries coming online typically last four hours, he said, so that means the state needs 2 to 3 GW of battery storage so it can rotate usage.

DeVries said he’s telling investors more is needed because “they think the battery market is smaller than it is.”

Utilities were bringing on more storage even before the rolling blackouts, DeVries said, adding that San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has about six battery projects in the works.

In addition to looking at resources to provide more energy supply and to curb demand, the agencies need to look at energy efficiency. A law enacted in 2015 said the state needs to double the energy efficiency of its buildings by 2030, and “we’re not on track to do that,” said Ralph Cavanagh, energy co-director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The California Energy Commission could make headway on energy efficiency as it considers changes to the building code that would take effect in 2027, he said.

Energy experts previously have said the rolling blackouts also happened because of poor regulatory coordination and regional cooperation (Energywire, Dec. 3, 2020).

“There’s a long history in California of siloed agencies” that didn’t work together, Cavanagh said. “This time around that is not happening. You’re seeing a collaborative responsive.”