September 16, 2020
What’s Ailing California’s Electric System?
California made headlines for all the wrong reasons recently with widespread rolling power outages in the middle of a heat wave and a pandemic. These blackouts were not an accident—they were intentionally scheduled by the grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), due to a shortage of resources available to keep the lights on.
The California blackouts led to a frenzy of hot takes and finger-pointing
1. Lack of clear accountability for having the resources to keep the lights on.
In some regions of the country, electric distribution companies directly invest in power plants under the supervision of state regulators. In others, regional markets use an auction system to buy enough resources to keep the lights on. I personally prefer market structures, but either system can work if it is clear who has the responsibility.
In California, the roles of the CAISO and the state regulators to keep the lights on are quite tangled. CAISO has the job of dispatching power plants but has little authority to ensure they get built. Lining up enough resources is largely under the supervision of state regulators. In other words, the buck stops nowhere. This should be remedied through the actions of the California legislature and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates CAISO.
2. Lack of resources to balance solar and wind power.
California leads the nation in solar generation, and also uses a lot of wind generation. These carbon-free resources help reduce the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels. But unlike conventional power plants, they cannot be turned on and off as needed. By design, their availability depends on the sun and wind at any given moment. They can work well in conjunction with resources that can be turned on as needed, especially in the evening when the sun goes down. These "balancing” resources can be gas-fired plants, pumped water or battery storage, hydroelectric power, or the collective actions of homes and businesses to move their consumption to different times of the day. California does not have enough of these resources. See problem #1—someone needs to be in charge.
3. Closing disfavored resources before opening the new ones.
It is hard to site and build new energy resources, including carbon-free resources, anywhere in the country. Even in regions where there is strong political support for clean energy to fight climate change, it often doesn’t translate to people allowing wind turbines or a high-voltage transmission line to be built anywhere near them.
California has been decisive about what resources it doesn’t want anymore, including many of its gas-fired power plants and its last nuclear power plant. It has been much slower to actually construct resources to take their place. In the past three years, California has closed 5,000 megawatts (MW) of gas generation in anticipation of building 3,000 MW of battery storage that is still on the drawing board. In a heat wave, when every resource is needed, this gap in resources came home to roost.
4. Operating in a silo.
California is a large state, but it is not an island. It is part of a larger region whose resources could help to balance those available in the state, helping both California and the West as a whole. While CAISO and its neighbors have shared resources when they have extra, this does not help when resources are scarce. California would benefit from a regional market that took advantage of different weather, time zones, and resources to keep the lights on at least cost. California legislators have repeatedly considered legislation to change CAISO to allow regional operation, but have preferred in-state control. I believe that decision should be reexamined to take California into the future.
Posted by: Dana Mathewson at September 16, 2020 09:26 AM (RCaEL)
Posted by: Bill H at September 16, 2020 01:55 PM (vMiSr)
Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at September 17, 2020 06:22 AM (JKTWa)
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Posted by: Dana Mathewson at September 17, 2020 09:17 PM (Xrkl6)
Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at September 19, 2020 11:09 AM (GAZD8)
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