‘Everything went wrong.’ Experts revisit Calif. blackouts

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 3, 2020

California’s unexpected rolling power blackouts in August were a stark signal that the state has not prepared to meet the escalating requirements of its clean energy goals, a panel of consultants and energy executives warned yesterday.

The fault was not the state’s mandates for increasing zero-carbon wind, solar and storage resources, said Arne Olson, senior partner with Energy and Environmental Economics (E3), a consulting firm that advises the California Energy Commission (CEC), during a webinar yesterday. Rather, poor planning, regulatory coordination and regional cooperation combined with an extraordinary August heat wave were to blame, said Olson and other speakers.

“I want to address the elephant in the room first, and that is California’s blackouts were not directly caused by our clean energy policies,” Olson said, describing the blackouts ordered by state grid operators affecting some 400,000 homes and businesses. The emergency actions, the Golden State’s first since 2001, were necessary to maintain a critical reserve of power as protection against the risk of a much larger cascading outage, officials said.

The webinar forum, titled “Keeping the Lights on in California,” was sponsored by Power Markets Today.

“There was a long string of things. Everything went wrong that could. Multiple fail-safes failed,” Olson added. “This sets the stage for these types of events to repeat in the future as our climate gets warmer and our power systems get under more and more stress.”

The challenge is ramping up fast, as more coal-fired generation retires in neighboring Western states, whose exports of surplus power are relied on by California. The 2,256-megawatt Diablo Canyon nuclear plant’s two reactors are scheduled to close in 2024 and 2025.

The review of the Aug. 14-15 blackouts came on a day when rising wildfire threats led Southern California Edison to announce it had started cutting power to customers in Los Angeles and Ventura counties to prevent downed power lines from igniting fires. The public safety power blackouts could extend to more than a quarter million customers, the utility said (Greenwire, Dec. 2).

The state’s utility regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, has begun a rulemaking on actions to prevent a recurrence of the emergency next summer (Energywire, Nov. 20).

Olson said responsibility for having adequate electricity supplies in reserve is divided along complex lines between the CPUC and the California Independent System Operator, the grid manager. Unlike other states, California’s resource planning directives were not based on specific grid reliability goals.

“This was known and understood prior to the summer of 2020” by state officials, Olson said. “For whatever reasons, the solutions weren’t ready in 2020.”

The state’s three electricity agencies — CPUC, CEC and California ISO — acknowledged in a report to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) about the rolling blackouts that planning had fallen short. “In transitioning to a reliable, clean and affordable resource mix, resource planning targets have not kept pace to lead to sufficient resources that can be relied upon to meet demand in the early evening hours,” the agencies stated in October (Energywire, Oct. 8).

California officials had plans to acquire more grid storage and kept some aging natural gas-fired generation in reserve, but new battery storage wasn’t ready in time and the gas facilities weren’t adequate.

“I think we cut it a little to close” and didn’t have enough storage ready last summer, said Alex Morris, executive director of the California Energy Storage Alliance.

“We have to address this going forward,” Olson said.

Another panelist, Carrie Bentley, CEO of Gridwell Consulting in Sacramento, said a drop in power shipments from neighboring states, which California depends on, occurred because of a breakdown in the state’s electricity market structure, not because power wasn’t available.

The issue centered on the state’s novel energy imbalance market (EIM), designed to automatically find low-cost power supplies needed to balance supply and demand. The prices that energy suppliers received in a crucial part of the EIM never rose high enough to attract the amount of power the state needed because of the market’s design, she said.

“There were resources out there that were fully available,” Bentley said. “They chose not to send their energy into California … solely because of price.”

Bentley said she hoped the issue would be fixed. California ISO has proposed a new power pricing strategy that could address this and other problems, she added.

Johnny Casana, senior manager of political and regulatory affairs for San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group Inc., said California’s challenge is greatly magnified by the pressures on power supplies in other Western states as they pursue their separate clean energy goals.

He cited an estimate that wind and solar power would have to climb from a western U.S. total of 35,000 MW to 140,000 MW by 2050.

A massive amount of wind energy is potentially available in mountain states, but the infrastructure to deliver it to customers isn’t, Casana said. “There is very limited firm transmission capacity left on the grid” in the region, he added.

An organized Western grid with coordinated transmission planning is required to deliver the wind and solar energy needed to meet clean energy goals, without costly curtailments of renewable power, he said.

Instead, the region is on a path of “not being able to meet these goals because the build-out doesn’t seem to be happening,” Casana added. Complexity and bureaucracy in planning is preventing rational regional decisionmaking, he said.

For its part, California is counting on energy storage capacity to fill in for high levels of wind and solar power when those resources aren’t available.

Morris, speaking for the storage group, said that the state faces an enormous need to acquire utility-level battery additions as gas generation is retired. Last summer, there was less than 200 MW of battery capacity online on a 50,000 MW statewide system, he noted.

He cited estimates that California must add 8,900 MW of utility solar and 973 MW of long-duration storage by 2030. The total could exceed 40,000 MW by 2045, he added. “We are so far from where we need to be that extremely aggressive procurement is needed,” he said.