California blackouts: Dude, where’s my Resource Adequacy?

The three main California energy agencies said it loud & clear in a letter to the Governor and the Legislature dated August 19: “…our organizations want to be clear about one factor that did not cause the rotating outage: California’s commitment to clean energy. Renewable energy did not cause the rotating outages.” That’s right, California’s climate policies and clean energy goals did not cause the outages, so what did? This question will be debated for a while, but several factors are known.

One of the main problems is 20th-century thinking: a mentality that the main mission of energy system planners is to increase supply to meet demand. In a world of ever-increasing amounts of variable energy sources (solar and wind mostly), the dynamics are in part reversed. Yes, we need to continue to add new clean renewables and storage and build capacity, but a reliable 21st-century energy system must also include attention on the demand side.

The attention that is needed is on something called aggregated and automated demand response. What that means is that we now have the technology (and it is already being used in some places, but must be expanded), to make it possible to automate reductions in electricity use at critical times in ways that don’t interfere with customer comfort. 

Sending out alerts begging residents and businesses to ramp down their use is an ineffective and obsolete approach. We have the technology to automate such throttling and all that is needed are pre-agreements with customers, particularly heavy load commercial and industrial customers, so that power can be made available when needed.

The first day that the blackouts hit, August 14, was also a deadline for formal comments in a proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission all about microgrids and how they can help build resilience – avoiding blackouts in the first place and weathering them more readily if they do occur. 

But there is another issue on my mind during this most recent episode: Resource Adequacy, which, as the name implies, is all about making sure we have enough power when there is high demand. The rules require utilities to buy an energy supply that is 15% more than what they would need during the highest forecast peaks for a given time of year. The California Public Utilities Commission spends thousands of hours drilling into minute detail on this one question, but clearly, current efforts aimed at resource adequacy are not working.

What can work, as outlined in this Inside Climate News article, is to “unobtrusively reduce customers’ electricity use during times of crisis so that the system remains stable, and maybe even get paid to allow it.” This is in fact happening already. One example of this kind of program is outlined in this PV Magazine article.

Capacity estimates of what demand response could supply in the form of “negawatts” (power demand that has been negated) far exceed the shortfall of around one gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) that we just experienced. In 2009 The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission produced a national assessment and found California had a potential for over 4 gigawatts of demand response. And that is not taking into account the prospect of compensating customers for their participation. It is 2020 and most of that capacity has yet to be tapped. It is high time that we get on with the business of tapping these highly effective strategies like automated demand response.

The development of clean energy community microgrids for Community Energy Resilience (CER) could also help address many of the problems that lead to blackouts. A decentralized power system of community microgrids built from the bottom up with clean power and storage could reduce the number of outages both planned and unplanned. This system would enable utilities to better target specific outages and to isolate local electricity generation from the larger grid. This would ensure that essential governmental, health, and other services would remain powered in communities during outages.

The dramatic climate impacts we are seeing right now here in California are further evidence of the urgency to act on the climate crisis. Please join us in supporting Community Energy Resilience and other important measures by endorsing our Climate-Safe California campaign today.

Building a clean, affordable, resilient, equitable, and safe energy system to meet this moment

by Janina Turner and Stacey Meinzen

As we reel from the COVID-19 pandemic and think about the longer-term consequences, many of us are likely wondering how things will be in the fall. Many of us remember the Public Safety Power Shut-offs of 2019 that meant no electricity for refrigeration, heat, the internet, and in some cases, vital medical equipment. It was a scary time and many people purchased diesel backup generators for their homes in response. Though they are loud and cause air pollution, that comfort of knowing you can rely on the internet for evacuation warnings or know where your family is during a crisis like a wildfire or a pandemic is more than understandable.

This year, even with March rains, we are already in a drought– portending another record-breaking fire season. Thanks to climate change, we know that our fire seasons will be longer and more disastrous every year. This may be compounded by COVID-19 and the necessity of sheltering in place– possibly without electricity.

In response to wildfires and prior to COVID-19, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had unveiled a plan to use dirty natural gas-powered generators (that they were calling “microgrids” in a misleading attempt to make them sound modern) throughout Northern California. This was a poor and outdated plan that would have destroyed local air quality, raised the risk of fire, and contributed even more to climate change through methane emissions. Given that COVID-19 is especially lethal for people with poor respiratory health, destroying local air quality is madness.

Luckily, PG&E recently abandoned these plans temporarily. According to Shinjini Menon, Director of Energy Policy for Southern California Edison, the microgrid plans would have cost 13 times more than alternative solutions and would not include clean energy technologies, so they have decided not to move forward with a microgrid deployment for the 2020 wildfire season. Looks like we are on our own.

Now many Californians are taking matters into their own hands and installing solar with battery storage. Many residents want the ability to use clean energy that they’ve created on their roofs to help them last in another power shut off event. Greentech Media reported that last year in the fourth quarter, solar installer Sunrun installed batteries on half of Bay Area home solar projects and 30% on all solar installations statewide. Though solar and storage have a large upfront cost, in the long run, the investment saves money over time since it will decrease energy bills year-round. Since there’s a large amount of solar and storage in the state, the best course of action would be to use this network of distributed energy resources (DERs) to power our homes during PSPS instead of relying on diesel generators and natural gas. 

There are many ideas about how to utilize the decentralized grid during power shutoffs. Sunrun recently revealed their decentralized grid concept that would create distribution islands utilizing solar and battery backup. Vote Solar also outlined why solar and storage are better for a more clean and resilient grid system. Even PG&E has approved a 1GWh Tesla battery facility along the central coast. With new technologies available, local and state governments must secure community clean energy resilience– not just leave it to people to try to save themselves. Statewide policy can help make it happen. 

Two bills supported by The Climate Center as part of our Climate-Safe California campaign are currently in the California legislature and are key to Community Energy Resilience:

SB 1314 (Introduced by Senator Bill Dodd): The Community Energy Resilience Act of 2020 requires the Strategic Growth Council to develop and implement a grant program for local governments interested in developing clean energy-based community energy resilience plans. 

SB 1240 (Introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner): The bill would require the California Energy Commission, in consultation with the California Independent System Operator, to identify and evaluate options for transforming the investor-owned distribution grid to provide open access that would allow local governments and other third parties to more easily participate in distribution grid transactions.

URGENT: Have your organization sign on here to support utility reform and clean community energy resilience. Individuals, please reach out to your state elected officials here.

Despite the challenges of this moment, there are viable technical and policy solutions to bring California into the 21st century. Experiencing these problems in the fifth largest economy in the world is absurd. A clean, affordable, resilient, equitable, and safe energy future is possible. Let’s build it. 

Part of California’s power outage solution is sitting in half a million driveways

Last week, when PG&E shut off power to almost one million customers, many of us were left without heat, refrigeration, internet, light, and other essential functions for days. While some people fired up gas and diesel generators to bridge the power gap, these fossil fuel generators are no treat for neighbors with asthma and other respiratory problems– and they fuel climate change. 

There is a better way and it may already be sitting in your driveway.

A half-million Californians already own an electric vehicle, and these machines have the potential to store a lot of energy for use during the kind of emergency we just had.

“Vehicle to Grid” (VTG) charging is what electric vehicle buffs call it, and mark my words– it’s going to come in handy. In this almost-but-not-quite-here Promised Land, millions of electric cars will be connected to the grid via chargers that allow power to flow both ways. At that point, every electric car can serve as an emergency power source for its home or business. VTG systems will also allow customers to save money by “peak-shaving” or drawing energy from the grid only when prices are low, while drawing energy from car batteries when electricity prices are high. You can accomplish the same thing with a stationary battery system in your home or business, although these systems can cost many thousands of dollars to purchase and install.

But power shutoffs are happening now. In rural Sebastopol, our freezer was full of preserved homegrown foods. We could not wait for the VTG chargers of the near future, nor could we afford a Tesla PowerWall. But we did have a Gen 1 Nissan Leaf and a small portable inverter with red and black alligator clips attached. 

I asked some knowledgeable friends about this, and they directed me to some online videos that showed me an ingenious hack that helped me save that large freezer full of food, and deepened my already profound love of my electric car.

Here is what I did. 

Note: The Climate Center does not endorse or recommend the workaround described below, and is not responsible for any harm or damage caused to person or property.

I connected the inverter to the 12-volt “starter battery” in my EV, in the same way I would connect jumper cables. The inverter converts the 12v in the battery to 120v household current. I then simply plugged in a heavy-duty extension cord into the inverter, and plugged the freezer into that. Voila! In an island of no power, my freezer suddenly came to life.

Of course, you can do this with any 12-volt battery, but it will soon run out of juice. The key is to leave your electric car ON (and in Park, of course), so that the lithium-ion batteries that normally power your car constantly top off the 12v battery, and leave your appliances or other devices running or charged. Brilliant!

Here are some things to know.

  1. Use an inverter that is rated at least 1000watts. If you use a smaller inverter it may run for a little while, but the draw of a freezer or fridge will soon burn it out, and it will cease to function.
  2. This is not recommended by any car manufacturer. I repeat: This is NOT recommended by any car manufacturer!
  3. If you use an extension cord, you must use one rated for high amps, with a three-prong plug and socket. Extension cords are rated using a number called AWG. The lower the number, the beefier the cord. 10AWG is suitable for 20amp device, and would be the best for this purpose.
  4. Only run the freezer or fridge for a short while at a time, and always while keeping a close eye on it. Do not just “set it and forget it,” in case there are issues. Remember, you are just trying to keep your freezer or fridge cold. If you run it for a couple of hours, then disconnect it, you will help preserve your food as long as you don’t open and close it.
  5. In over 5 hours of running my freezer from my EV, I used less than 10% of my available energy.

Is this the long term solution to living in a climate-challenged world? Clearly no. The long-term solutions are massive utility reform, the growth of clean and smart community microgrids that can provide local power, and a broad suite of policies to achieve rapid decarbonization to address the climate crisis.

We also need to put an end to the age of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). When we all drive electric cars, charged by wind, sun, and geothermal energy, connected to our homes and the grid via smart chargers, we can finally take a nap.

But in the meantime, if you have an electric car, go out and get a 1000w+ inverter, and a heavy-duty extension cord, and you will be much better prepared for the next time your utility chooses to shut off your power.

Community microgrids are safe, reliable, clean, smart, and distributed.

Opinion: Microgrids could prevent need for planned power outages

  • Our aging and unstable electrical system must be replaced now, not decades from now

This piece was originally published in the Mercury News opinion section on October 25, 2019. (Subscription required.)

The dramatic increase in the size and severity of California’s wildfires in recent years is just one example of the devastating effects of climate change. PG&E’s power shutdowns this month due to high-fire-risk wind conditions is a stark reminder that our aging and unstable electrical system must be replaced now, not decades from now.

In response to power shutoffs, homeowners, businesses and managers of critical facilities, such as city halls, fire stations, hospitals and schools, currently buy fossil fuel-powered back-up generators. But dirty diesel generators are not the solution. They are heavy polluters, noisy, expensive to operate and are themselves a fire risk. Further, replenishing the supply of diesel fuel is not always possible during an emergency.

There is a better way. California needs a new decentralized power system with clean, resilient energy sources. A more resilient system would reduce the number of outages both planned and unplanned. A decentralized system would enable utilities to better target specific outages and operationally isolate local electricity generation from the larger grid. This would ensure that essential governmental, health and other services would remain powered in communities during outages.

To get started building a decentralized system from the bottom up, every community should identify its critical facilities—water supply, wastewater treatment, first responders and community care centers—and decide where to install new local renewables and storage to create community microgrids. Building microgrids at the community level to generate and store electricity makes more sense than leaving it to random business and residential deployments with everyone prioritizing their own facilities and needs.

To accelerate building community microgrids, The Climate Center started the Advanced Community Energy (ACE) initiative. ACE works to provide funding, technical expertise and local capacity for cities and counties to plan and implement local clean energy and battery storage systems to keep the lights on when grid power goes off. ACE planning involves collaboration between local governments and stakeholders, from residents including those in disadvantaged neighborhoods to electric distribution utilities, clean energy developers and technology companies.

Some California local governments have already started developing community microgrids, such as in OaklandEureka and Santa Barbara. These efforts need to expand to other communities soon. A statewide program to ensure that all cities and counties have the funding and technical support to conduct collaborative, participatory planning processes is essential.

To fully implement community microgrids statewide, we must transform our regulatory policies and institutions by revising market rules so that thousands of small-scale-distributed energy resources can be compensated for providing local energy services. We need to direct the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to develop regulatory rules for the big electric utilities to collaborate in good faith with the cities, counties and other stakeholders in their service areas.

We also need market signals to enable this transformation, starting with increased state funding to support critical facility microgrid projects. The first state supported community microgrids should be established in high fire risk areas in disadvantaged communities, and eventually should cover all of California.

Community microgrids are the logical next step in California’s remarkable history of energy policy innovation. The Advanced Community Energy initiative offers a blueprint for engaging local governments and the communities they serve in creating a clean, resilient, more affordable and equitable electricity system.

Ellie Cohen is CEO of The Climate Center, a California-based nonprofit working to enact the bold policies required by the science and climate reality to reverse the climate crisis. 

Many thanks to Kurt Johnson, Susan Thomas and others at The Climate Center for assistance in writing this piece.