Newsletter: California isn’t ready for hot grid summer

The fail fast” ethos doesn’t work so well for avoiding grid outages.

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There was a moment, a year ago, when California’s August heat wave blackouts prompted statewide soul-searching about the need to make the grid stronger, ASAP.

Somehow it’s August again. Heat wave after heat wave has hammered the West, reservoir levels are low, and more heat and fire are coming. So what has the concentrated might of the world’s fifth-largest economy achieved to defend itself?

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Not much at all, according to the latest assessment from Gov. Gavin Newsom. The state fell behind schedule on activating large-scale power plants, while also failing to significantly expand small-scale participation in demand reduction, Jeff St. John reports.

The end result is that California faces an energy supply shortfall of up to 3,500 megawatts during the net-peak period on days with extreme heat, the emergency declaration stated — worse than the shortfall that agencies projected in May.
There is insufficient time or supply to install new energy storage or zero-carbon energy projects” to meet that shortfall, the emergency declaration states, indicating that its move to waive regulations to speed new resources may not yield significant changes until next year.

The litany of disappointments is almost as long as the state’s scenic coastline.

  • Utilities paid for more last-minute natural gas capacity, but 300 megawatts of that won’t show up this summer.
  • The state approved a bunch of new battery plants, but several projects expected this summer are running months behind.
  • Grid operator CAISO tried to use an emergency authority in July to secure 2,000 megawatts of power plant capacity, but it only got 300 megawatts.
  • Efforts to expand a commercial and industrial demand-reduction program weren’t panning out, so Newsom is using state funds to double the payout. But the program doesn’t offer upfront or fixed payments for participating; the uncertainty of the payout and complexity are likely to hinder enrollment.
  • Companies that aggregate customer energy devices to lower grid demand say they weren’t accurately compensated for the help they provided last time. California hasn’t addressed those concerns that the way it accounts for load reductions penalizes companies that are helping stave off blackouts.

In theory, tapping customers to reduce grid demand lets you move quicker than if you had to build an actual power plant. But regulations slow down the turnaround, Jeff notes:

California’s slow process for enrolling new customers in demand-response programs has also held back growth, said Jennifer Chamberlin, CPower’s executive director of market development. It takes two years for CPower and other demand-response providers to move from signing up new customers to having them approved as a grid resource in California.
We needed to start in 2020 to qualify 2022 megawatts, even though you can stand up new resources in a couple of months,” she said. The commission has done nothing to streamline that process.”

All of this ends up in a place where the technology capital of the world has to more or less beg people to donate grid flexibility so the power system doesn’t break.

That actually worked last time, but that’s not a strategy you can count on time after time.

As those conservation calls become more frequent, they’re likely to become less effective. CAISO has already issued five separate calls for voluntary conservation during days of triple-digit temperatures over the past two months, but its most recent calls appear to have yielded much lower participation, according to preliminary data.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the kind of limited, short-duration rolling outages we saw last year aren’t anywhere near as devastating and deadly as the prolonged icy blackouts Texas experienced months later. Like a vampire, California’s electricity shortage only appears when the sun goes down.

But that’s not much to look forward to. Unless you’re in the business of selling battery systems for home backup, in which case, this mess is as good an advertisement as you could ask for.

(Lead image: Manish Upadhyay/Unsplash)

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Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.