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.