On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Californians had their power cut for a spurt in the evening. And more of this could be in store in the coming days as record breaking heat beats down on the state and wildfires burn out of control.
State officials have said the need for the shutoffs shows the inadequacies of renewable power. On Monday, Stephen Berberich, president of California’s Independent System Operator (CAISO), the agency which made the call to enact the rolling shutoffs, blamed the California Public Utilities Commission for failing to ensure adequate power capacity on hot nights after the sun sets. That’s when electricity generated by the state’s solar panels drops to zero but demand for air conditioning remains high. The implication, that transitioning away from fossil fuels has made California’s energy less reliable, could work in the gas industry’s favor, since the state is reviewing proposals to keep several natural gas plants in Southern California online.
“We cannot sacrifice reliability as we move forward in this transition,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday. “And we’re going to be much more aggressive in focusing our efforts and our intention in making sure that is the case.”
But despite Berberich’s and other’s assertions, there is no evidence that solar actually failed at all. In fact, energy experts have noted that based on the energy reserves that are available, the state should be able to handle the peak electricity demand that increased air conditioning use amid the heat wave is causing.
“I think the explanation here is just human error,” said Leah Stokes, a renewable energy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The system operator messed up. People are saying, ‘oh, it’s problems with renewables, blah blah blah renewables are bad,’ because they have some kind of political motivation to do that. But actually it seems that CAISO ... shouldn’t have had to order any rolling blackouts.”
The heat wave is causing a spike in energy demand, and the state did lose some sources of power at the same time, causing what CAISO called a “perfect storm” of events. But the biggest power sources that went offline this past weekend weren’t solar power plants. CAISO’s own data shows that on Friday when the blackouts were announced, the solar supply remained pretty consistent, but the state’s natural gas supply underperformed by 400 megawatts.
“It was actually gas that failed,” said Shana Lazerow, a staff attorney at environmental justice nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment. “We should be talking about how gas is unreliable.”
Wind energy also underperformed over the weekend, producing about 1,000 megawatts below state analysts’ expectations. That’s not wholly surprising, as wind is notoriously difficult to forecast, due to the many factors that can impact its functioning. But even this dip should not have been enough to trigger the call for rolling power shutoffs. Traditionally, grid operators have opted to keep an operating reserve of at least 3% of power demand. Below that and rolling blackouts could be triggered. But this weekend, reserves only got down to 8.9%.
“We can handle some variability,” said Stokes. “We had the operating energy reserves to handle this ... but it seems like they just jumped the gun anyway.”
The response to these blackouts, said Lazerow, should be rolling out more renewable energy, not less. But that rollout must include diverse sources of power as well as storage, which is the real key.
“[Conservatives] aren’t wrong to say that solar alone won’t cut it, because the sun doesn’t always shine. But California also has really ambitious mandates and visions for incorporating storage—long duration storage, short duration storage, batteries, pumped storage—into our system. We just haven’t brought all that online yet,” she said.
If the state had hurried to bring more storage capacity into operation, it could have been charging to use in an emergency scenario where demand was too high to keep up with the energy supply. The same is true of microgrids, which improve energy resiliency because they can operate separately from the central grid when it is experiencing unusually high demand.
“We’ve been fighting for more clean energy microgrids for years,” said Jessica Tovar, energy democracy organizer at Local Clean Energy Alliance. “But the fossil fuel industry and their friends, the monopoly utilities, have opposed us bringing them on ... It’s their fault that our vulnerable communities don’t have those resilience measures.”
Finding solutions is crucial. Though Californians are only losing power for about an hour at a time, these rolling blackouts can pose dangers to vulnerable communities and letting them be a fixture of life on a warming planet will only make matters worse.
“There are a large number of people who rely on electricity to live. Think of people on respirators or on breathing machines,” Lazerow said. “We have community members who are diabetic and need to keep their insulin refrigerated. For communities who don’t have as much access to back-up power sources like generators, these blackouts are particularly challenging.”
Even if the heat waves had caused an insurmountable spike in energy demand, Stokes said moving away from renewables would be exactly the wrong response.
“Let’s be real, why do we have heat waves right now, across the western U.S.? It’s because of climate change,” she said. “Parts of California ... have warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit]. These are places that historically didn’t need air conditioning, and now they do because they’re seeing record high temperatures for days in a row, so people are going to need more electricity. And that is because we have burned fossil fuels for over 100 years.”