The California Independent System Operator: A High Wire Act on Solid Ground

May 20, 2015  |  by Woody Hastings

Recently I visited the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) – my first visit ever. I always wondered why CAISO was located in Folsom, California. I learned that Folsom is one of the least seismically active areas in the State, yet still close to the centers of policy decision-making.

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Why locate CAISO on stable ground? CAISO manages the flow of electricity across more than 25,000 miles of transmission lines, serves about 30 million people, and balances electricity supply and demand every four seconds. If this high wire system ever went down, calamity would ensue.

A top priority for CAISO is figuring out how to ensure grid reliability while helping to lead the transition to a low carbon energy future. The energy industry is in a period of unprecedented transition from the one-hundred year-old central station model with large power plants and long transmission lines to a more decentralized model with intermittent renewables such as solar and wind accounting for a rapidly increasing proportion of power generation in California.

CAISO is a non-profit public benefit corporation founded in 1997 at the outset of the experiment in electric utility deregulation. Prior to its existence, a sort of “wild west” existed where the grid was managed in a less than optimal way by the three largest utilities themselves, each with their own best interest in mind, not necessarily the best interest of the overall electricity system or the electricity customer.

Currently CAISO manages a statewide power mix that includes about 22% renewables. The State goal for 2020 is 33%, a goal that Sonoma Clean Power has already achieved. By 2030 the State aims to achieve 50% renewable energy in the mix. Although this amount of renewable in the mix presents some technical challenges, it is certainly achievable. With the advent of practical, affordable energy storage, the future prospects for intermittent renewables have improved.

Interested in learning more about CAISO? It’s easy to schedule a tour.

Woody Hastings is the Renewable Energy Implementation Manager at The Climate Center. He can be reached at woody@theclimatecenter.org

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