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How Public Policy Has Caused California's Rolling Blackouts

California is experiencing rolling blackouts, with millions affected on August 15, in the middle of a heatwave. This is the second time in less than a year. What's the root cause of the problem?
california's rolling blackouts

It’s the policies designed to accelerate the state's shift to renewable energy. While this is obviously desirable for most of us, rushing the matter has caused money to be diverted from grid maintenance to renewable development. The media loves to blame climate change for the recent fires; however, the data says something else. Other factors behind California’s rolling blackouts include the hot weather and stay at home orders causing more people to be inside during the evening.

California’s Rolling Blackouts: The Diurnal Root of the Problem

Because of its climate, the bulk of California's investment in renewable energy has been in solar energy. In fact, during the afternoon, California's solar plants produce so much energy that the state is unable to store it and sells it to other states.

Then the sun goes down, power production drops, and, in theory, other plants come online to meet the gap. Unfortunately, California is not producing enough energy from other sources to fill the gap when cooling demand is particularly high.

Investment in huge batteries to store solar power through the evening is ongoing, but policies have failed Californians when it comes to ensuring they have enough power. The state should be buying power from other states (although this is less effective if the heatwave has also spread to neighboring states). The state should be investing in replacement natural gas plants to last until the demand can be met 100% with renewables. However, as the state has not planned well for this, they have been forced to buy any extra power on the spot market, which can be ten times the normal rate.

California Is Running Out of In-State Options

As more of these plants retire in the 2020s, the situation will become worse, and many people will be left without vital air conditioning during the hottest part of the year. Coal plants are shutting down because of competition from cheaper sources. The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant will also reach the end of its life in 2024.

For years, the grid operator's president, Stephen Berberich, has been trying to say that the regulators and Public Utilities Commission have failed to prepare for this. As usual, though, it takes bad things to happen before people start to take a problem seriously. While I am a lover of the earth and live to be outside, I am not sure we can blame these recent wildfires on climate change alone if at all. Neglect, arson, and bad policy seem more likely. And what do most politicians love to do? Blame someone else.

Thick orange haze above San Francisco from record wildfires in California, daytime view of ash and smoke floating over the Bay Area
Can California blame these fires completely on climate change or does data point to something or someone else?

Can California's Grid Run Entirely on Renewables?

Thankfully, the answer is yes, it can. However, current policy is not managing the changes well and is leaving millions of people in the literal dark. Additionally, the development has greatly increased Californians' electricity bills, largely due to the cost of storage and transmission.

What is needed is batteries and planning. California's anti-nuclear policies have not helped the situation. It's perfectly understandable not to want to build or run nuclear power plants in an earthquake zone, especially after Fujisawa, but the removed capacity would have solved the problem. Next-generation nuclear plants can and should be part of the power equation.

It also takes reciprocal agreements. If California can sell power to the wider grid when they have an excess, they should be able to purchase it when they don't have enough at similar rates. Being on the west side of the country does not help with solar power access. But in theory, it may be possible to buy energy from wind generation in flyover states. This was the original business plan of renewables advocate and one of Houston's favorite cleantech entrepreneurs, Michael Skelly, when he started Clean Line Energy Partners.

However, in the short term, the easiest way to manage the shortfall is to build natural gas-fired power plants to handle the base load of the grid. This is not an answer regulators in California want to hear, but until we have the technology needed to improve and enable the grid, it's what has to happen. Prove me wrong!

How Can Distributed, Smart Grids Help?

In 2003, a single power line shut down in northern Ohio. The cause was that somebody didn't prune some trees.

The alarm system failed.

Three other lines nearby were also affected by the same poor maintenance. They also failed. By 4:05 pm, a cascade failure started through the power grid.

50 million people lost power for up to two days because of one unpruned tree. The Great Northeast Blackout highlighted how vulnerable our power infrastructure can be. Along with making sure people prune trees, it taught us that our traditional power grid has significant issues.

That's Where Smart Grids Come In

The same interconnectedness that lets us move power from one place to the other to compensate also allows blackouts to spread widely. The 2003 blackout is the most famous major cascade failure due to its sheer scale. But cascade failures are a common issue on the grid. Most of the time, they are stopped quickly. But a smart grid would have prevented the 2003 blackout by detecting the phase increase associated with the overload. This would have allowed grid operators to reroute power and shut down lines in a way that kept the blackout localized and under control.

A smart grid would allow automatic transactions between states to balance out load. It could also keep polluting power plants idle until the grid needs them. It would improve compensation for the lower reliability of renewables. Also, a smart grid could improve things for consumers by calculating energy costs based on real-time usage and offering more accurate calculation for hyper-local power generation, such as personal solar systems that might feed power back to the grid. Even better, higher detection capability will help utilities find line faults and fix them faster, potentially without customers needing to report the problem.

What Do We Need for a Smart Grid?

solar panel field in Kern County, California
Building out the solar panel infrastructure, like this solar field in Kern County, was just the start.

To create a truly smart grid that could solve California’s rolling blackouts, we need a number of elements to come together:

1. New Technology

One key piece of technology that already exists is the Phasor Measurement Unit (PMU). This is a device that measures grid stability. The grid also needs digital meters that report outages without customer intervention, feeder switches that automatically reroute power around problems, etc. Oh, and batteries. Large-scale batteries are a keystone technology for improved grid reliability. Blockchain may well provide the security needed to ensure that hostile actors do not target a smart, distributed grid. AI algorithms to control the grid are vital, but they must be coded and trained carefully to make sure problems and biases are not introduced.

2. Improved Communication Between All Stakeholders

There's an unfortunate tendency for utility companies to end up in an antagonistic relationship with regulators. Alternatively, they may have the regulators "in their pocket" in ways which are unfriendly to consumers. Communication needs to happen between regulators, utility companies, technology vendors, and end-users. That's the only way to ensure that the power grid meets everyone's needs. Companies like LO3 Energy have attempted to accelerate regulatory support by engaging them early into projects like the Brooklyn Microgrid. Failure of the existing grid as well as projects like mentioned will help, but is it enough?

3. Legislation

California lawmakers should support smart grid development. But they should also ensure that there is enough baseload power to protect the grid and reduce or eliminate blackouts.

In many ways, the second and third of these factors are much harder than the first. The technology is, at many levels, an engineering problem. We don't yet have an AI that can run the grid, but it is sure close and we certainly will if we work on it. PMUs already exist but are insufficiently deployed. Batteries are improving all the time.

Another interesting issue is at the Federal level. Who knew that shortly before Clinton left office in 2001, his action to preserve America's forests would restrict the United States Forecast Service from removing/pruning the dense thicket of foliage and downed trees on federal land? This reminds me of the paper or plastic debate. Which one is more sustainable? It depends on where the source material came from and depends on how it is being used. There have been some attempts to fix the situation, but is it enough?

Improving communication and cooperation is far more of a challenge. Different actors have different goals, especially when the power is not created by the same entity that manages the grid. Hostility between utility companies and end-users is a major problem in many areas. Regulators often favor one at the expense of the other. However, we need to move towards a situation where everyone involved acknowledges that they have a stake in a more reliable and secure grid that also fairly compensates all parties involved. This includes everyone from state regulators to residential consumers.

How Should California Move Forward?

California's regulators need to develop their awareness of how their regulatory choices have impacted power grid stability. The idealistic goal of switching entirely to renewables is admirable, but it should not be rushed. Now, I will be writing further about the decentralized, distributed, and localized grid that can support a move away from centralized generation; however, I will also show why it is taking longer than desired.

In many ways, the situation is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse, of focusing on the overall goal rather than the road map to get there. California's regulators need to step back and put a proper plan in place before California’s rolling blackouts get worse, which, especially given the heat situation, could easily result in deaths.

They Need Natural Gas, More Cooperation, and More Maintenance

Instead, the state should properly plan the new grid and keep natural gas capacity online to protect the baseload capacity of the grid. Regulators also need to fast track the technologies and software needed to move towards a smart, distributed, secure power grid. This will become even more necessary as power demand increases and weather conditions become worse.

They also need to fix the clusterf#%k incentive structure and relationship with the power companies. Remember, California has been here before. I remember reading this article a year ago about PG&E and its inability to serve all masters. "The regulatory structure gives the utility an incentive to over-invest in facilities and to underspend on operation and maintenance."

Overall, the solution is to fast track the technologies needed to build a smart grid and improve the reliability of renewables. Simultaneously, they need to keep enough traditional power capacity to ensure that customers get the power they need. Let me know what else you think could help solve California’s rolling blackouts — and power grid instability across the country.