In the first week of September this year, California experienced constant power outages due to 20-year high forecast. Residents were asked to reduce their electricity consumption and the risk of rolling blackouts. Is this the new normal? Or can the threat of rolling blackouts be avoided? The likely answer is that the risk of rolling blackouts can be greatly reduced, but due to other priorities, such reliability risks have become the new normal.
What Peak Demand Looked Like in California in Recent History. The chart below shows the recorded peaks and projected value for 2022 that raised concerns in early September.
Forecast peak conditions were 2.5% above the high 20 years ago and 2.9% above what was observed 5 years ago.
The idea that a system could be unprepared because its peak was a few percentage points higher than what it was 5 years ago would have seemed strange to a planner 30 years ago. Many of us are accustomed to seeing bursts of peak demand growth that averaged 8 to 10% per year or more. The peak demand shown above for California is fairly well capped. The most basic planning criterion is that the system must be able to survive the loss of the largest generating resource and the most critical transmission element during peak load without loss of load and without sudden voltage drops or system undamped oscillations. Looking at the variability of load levels here, there are no particular problems for planners. If green resources were able to replace traditional resources with minor adjustments, we would not see the problems that we are seeing.
Why is California struggling now, and why could there be challenges in the future? First of all, because the emphasis on green energy increases the share of “green” non-permanent resources. Green resources are not as reliable as traditional rotating machines and are not also support the system. It is likely that these resources are credited with more carrying capacity than guaranteed, and when the rubber meets the road, it does not perform as “expected”. Interleaved resources cause problems both on the generation side and on the load side. Intermittent solar power on the residential side serves to reduce load, as seen in the Cal ISO. When the solar power is not working properly, the available load that is not displaced by the solar power on the residential side increases at the same time that the solar power on the supply side decreases.
If California were more honest about the opportunities for green scheduling of discontinuous resources, they would be expanded. However, honesty about the possibilities of green resources can have consequences that some may find unacceptable. There has been a big push to make the “green” options look much more economical and efficient than they are, to be more competitive. Subsidizing “green” resources by traditional use occurs in different ways. In addition to lending to green resources beyond their reliable capacity, other subsidies include directing the costs associated with such additions to other. Honesty makes the green dream much harder to sell. Assuming green resources perform well saves other investments in the network. This ploy tends to limit the cost increase that these resources must cause, but it does so at the cost of reliability. This trade-off takes time to see as we have built electrical grids to have a very high level of reliability at the mass level.. In the short term, it seems like you’re getting a cleaner, equally reliable system at a moderate cost increase. But as penetration increases, cost gets higher and reliability gets much worse.
In 2015 I wrote here:
Wider deployment of renewable resources will limit the options available to operators, while at the same time increasing uncertainty about expected generation patterns. To accommodate this uncertainty, the choice is to 1) increase grid and infrastructure costs, 2) limit grid flexibility, 3) increase the cost of production from standby generating resources, or 4) live with increased risks and reduced reliability. It is likely that all four exist and will continue to occur to varying degrees as the penetration of discontinuous resources increases.
California policies have defined resource investment, resource allocation, and how and when power systems should be improved to improve reliability. Blaming extreme weather for fueling the current fears seems entirely achievable. I suspect that a careful and objective examination of the weather data would show that weather of such concern is not extraordinary, given historical weather patterns. But if there really was something unusual about the weather caused by climate change, shouldn’t those in charge have foreseen this? California is spending huge sums of money on a climate change based energy system, it seems incredible that they would not include such anticipated changes in their planning models.
Will California learn to avoid power outages during peak periods? If reliability were the main concern, this situation would not have to repeat itself in a few years. California needs to be able to properly evaluate its energy resources and match them with forecast weather to ensure sufficient power. If other priorities interfere with responsible steps to ensure reliability, then those priorities should take responsibility for the consequences, not the weather. If California wants to continue like this, they need to be honest and make statements like the following:
This is the end of affordable and reliable electricity as we have understood it for much of the past 50 years. We choose green technologies to cope with the climate crisis. Maintaining previous levels of reliability will significantly increase your costs. Since we are trying to limit costs, this will reduce your reliability. At times there will be no power. We must all help each other.
Of course, if you look at everything honestly, this can lead to further changes. Ideally, the food system is the best balance between economics, reliability and social responsibility. California has reached a balance skewed by false expectations that “green” resources cannot meet. Creating a balance that takes into account the real cost and impact of green resources on reliability should benefit California electricity users. Hopefully, as consumers, voters, politicians, and others better understand the exact pros and cons of available generation options, either consumers will understand why their reliability is low, or politicians will make better choices on their behalf. A fair consideration of the performance of system resources will result in a better balance of economics, reliability, and cost.