Inside Clean Energy: What We Could Be Doing to Avoid Blackouts

The solution to California’s blackouts isn’t using more natural gas, it’s finding ways to unobtrusively cut electricity use.

Aug 20, 2020
Firefighters monitor flames as they approach a residence in the valley area of Vacaville, northern California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Firefighters monitor flames as they approach a residence in the valley area of Vacaville, northern California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Inside Clean Energy

Almost as soon as the first blackouts began in California on Friday, the questions and commentary began about what this might—or might not—mean for the country's transition to clean energy.

Predictably, some said the blackouts showed the importance of natural gas in maintaining a stable grid, while renewable energy advocates contended the power outages had more to do with poor planning by state officials than any shortcomings of wind and solar power.

But this debate is short-sighted. There's no doubt that the electricity system and the entire economy must drastically cut emissions to deal with climate change.

The reality is that grid operators and policymakers already are aware of the tools they need to operate a clean and reliable grid. California is ramping up construction of battery storage systems that can charge during the day and then provide electricity to the grid in the evening when solar power is fading. The state also has an untapped resource in offshore wind, which would provide electricity in many of the hours when solar is not active.

The problem is that it will take years to build enough storage and probably a decade or more to build offshore wind.

So I'm going to focus on a solution that's available right now: "demand response," a catch-all term for technologies and policies that unobtrusively reduce customers' electricity use during times of crisis so that the system remains stable.

"There's a shared responsibility for a lot of people for this problem," said Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University, about the blackouts.

What Keeps California Running

Rather than blame companies or regulators for the blackouts at a time when it's still not entirely clear what happened, Mulvaney said he wanted to focus on the larger issue of how we can avoid blackouts by reducing electricity demand.

Demand response can be as simple as utilities issuing public messages encouraging customers to adjust their thermostats to reduce electricity use. The utilities did this in California, but Mulvaney was frustrated that the messages were not widely disseminated.

"It seems the utility's lost its ability to connect to its customers," he said. "We didn't get any text messages or anything."

Customers already have a highly contentious relationship with the utility Pacific Gas & Electric over issues that include the company's use of forced blackouts affecting millions of people last year to deal with wildfire risks.

But even with the problems in communication, the utilities were able to avoid more extensive blackouts this week because the public responded to alerts asking for people to reduce electricity use.

Mulvaney said he is excited about the ways that technology can be used to reduce demand. I'm excited by this, too. Take a look at some of the demand response research and analysis being done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to get an idea of the potential.

Some businesses already have systems in which they get payments in exchange for agreeing to reduce electricity use at times of high demand. In some cases, a central controller can turn down the power, or have the customer switch to battery power.

The same kinds of technologies can be used to reduce electricity in households and neighborhoods, sending electronic messages to water heaters and other appliances to reduce their power use, one of numerous measures that are meaningful for the grid but are barely noticeable for the customer.

If entire neighborhoods signed up to participate in demand response programs, grid operators would have more flexibility to make small adjustments, ensuring the grid remains stable.

But these systems are not used nearly as widely as they could be, Mulvaney said.

He said he would like to see state lawmakers and the California Public Utilities Commission take action to create more robust incentives for utilities to use demand response technologies.

For now, though, the state is in crisis mode. The blackouts began on Friday with utilities shutting off power in certain parts of the grid for short stretches because the electricity supply fell short of demand. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the failure to prevent the blackouts was "unacceptable" and called for an investigation.

Steve Berberich, CEO of the California Independent System Operator, which operates the state's power grid, apologized to consumers for not giving enough notice about the power shortages. He also placed some blame on the California Public Utilities Commission for not doing more to require that utilities are prepared for times of high demand.

The crisis is ongoing, with stifling heat and raging wildfires around the state—155 fires ignited within a 24-hour period, sparked by dry heat and lightning—making for a hellish week.

After the Blackouts, Get Ready to Argue a Lot About Natural Gas

Before this last round, California hadn't experienced rolling blackouts because of electricity shortages since 2001. Considering that the 2001 energy crisis spawned years of investigations, it's safe to say that we'll be analyzing this one for a while, and I expect to see lots of scrutiny of the role of natural gas.

The state's electricity grid now relies much less on gas and nuclear and much more on renewable energy than it did in 2001. Coal was never a big player.

Renewables accounted for 49.2 percent of electricity generation in California last year, led by solar, hydroelectric and wind. Natural gas made up 41.7 percent, followed by nuclear, with 7.9 percent.

In 2001, natural gas was the leader, accounting for 56.4 percent of electricity generation; renewables represented 23.8 percent and nuclear, 16.7 percent.

Advocates for natural gas and nuclear were quick to say that the recent blackouts showed why we need more natural gas and nuclear power plants, and should not be over-reliant on renewables.

The Wall Street Journal summed up this viewpoint in an editorial saying that the blackouts were "a warning to the rest of America about the risks of Green New Deal policies."

The Green New Deal would move the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy as part of a package that would address concerns about climate change and environmental justice.

Mark Specht, an energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me that some of the critics are failing to recognize that California's electricity system has been remarkably reliable over 19 years of great change.

"Unsurprisingly, the natural gas interests in the state, the natural gas power plant folks, are spinning this as a failure of California's transition to renewable energy, which really, really frustrates me," he said.

He said he is waiting for more details about what caused the recent blackouts, but he thinks the problem is probably a matter of poor planning by utilities that failed to have enough resources available during hours when solar is moving down from its peak. Those resources could have come from natural gas, battery storage or something that isn't yet available in California, like offshore wind.

The larger danger is that these blackouts could be used as a reason to slow the transition to clean energy, he said.

How Does a Utility Bring About a 30-Fold Increase in Electric Vehicle Use?

Xcel Energy is placing a new emphasis on electric vehicles, saying it will pursue programs and support policies that would help to put 1.5 million EVs on the road by 2030.

But so far, the company is only giving a few specifics about how it intends to reach a number that looks more like an aspiration than a firm target.

Minneapolis-based Xcel said last week that its goal is to "drive toward powering 1.5 million electric vehicles" throughout its service territory, equal to about 20 percent of the cars and trucks on the road.

That would mean a 30-fold increase in EV market share, the company said.

Xcel lists proposed initiatives across its territory, including in Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico and Wisconsin, which are some of the first steps toward meeting the goal.

The programs, with a cost of about $300 million, mostly deal with charging infrastructure, helping individuals and businesses afford to set up charging stations and giving rate discounts for charging.

The company's announcement is significant because it sends a strong signal that EVs are gaining momentum in the market and Xcel plans to be a leader in that transition, said Joe Halso, a Sierra Club attorney who specializes in EV issues. This adds to the idea the EVs are gaining momentum.

"Xcel is putting a stake in the ground, saying, 'Here's our vision for transportation electrification across our service territories over the next decade and here's what we've been doing so far,'" he said.

He told me he is eager to see how this works in practice, including whether Xcel will become more of a forceful advocate in policy debates that relate to EVs.

If this was just about any utility other than Xcel, I might have doubts about whether this plan will be followed by serious action to meet the goal.

But Xcel has earned a surplus of credibility in its transition to clean energy. In 2018, it was the first large utility to set a target of net-zero emissions, saying it would reach that goal by 2050.

Xcel initially had few specifics about how it would meet the net-zero goal, but has since provided many details.

Automakers Finalize Deal with California on Auto Emissions, Working Around the Trump Administration

While California suffers through a heatwave, fires and blackouts, the state also made some clear progress in its push to have vehicle fuel economy standards that are greater than the federal government's.

On Monday, the California Air Resources Board announced that it finalized agreements with six top automakers on commitments to meet the state's fuel economy standards.

The automakers are BMW, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Cars drive in Los Angeles traffic. Credit: Prayitno/flickr

Cars drive in Los Angeles traffic. Credit: Prayitno/flickr

The agreements mean that the companies will follow the standards through the 2026 model years, even if the Trump administration is successful in its court challenge to whether California can issue its own standards.

By not waiting for the courts, the companies are undermining the Trump administration's ability to impose weaker standards.

This is part of a much larger battle between the state and administration, which the California board helpfully lays out with a timeline that goes back to Trump's election in 2016.

In the short run, the new agreement is good business for the automakers, because they know what rules they will be following regardless of what happens in court. In corporate-speak, this is called "regulatory certainty," something that several of the automakers mentioned in statements about the deal.

"Our final agreement will reduce emissions in our vehicles at a more stringent rate, support and incentivize the production of electrified products, and create regulatory certainty that benefits the environment and reduces costs to customers,"a statement from Ford said.

Inside Clean Energy will be taking a break next week. Back on Sept. 3.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN's weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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