Improved Grid Conditions for Summer, But Extended Heat Wave Could still Pose Risk

California’s electric grid is in better shape for summer than it was last August, when record-setting heat throughout the West made it impossible to satisfy demand and brief rotating outages were necessary, a legislative committee was told in May.

But Elliot Mainzer, president and chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator (ISO), and his counterparts at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and California Energy Commission (CEC), included a caveat with their generally positive assessments.

How the grid holds up will ultimately depend on Mother Nature, as well as conservation by industry and consumers if supply and demand again become imbalanced.

“I have used the term guarded optimism because the steps we have taken together with the CPUC and CEC clearly place us in a better position relative to last summer,” Mainzer told the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee in testimony delivered remotely due to the pandemic. “However, the most significant risk factor for grid reliability remains extreme heat, particularly heat that spreads across the wider Western United States . . .

“It continues to get hotter every year. As a result, the grid will continue to remain vulnerable to high loads and decreased imports during a broader West-wide heat wave event like the one we saw last year. If imports dry up and we’re limited to capacity that’s been secured under resource adequacy contracts, were facing the possibility of scarcity of energy supply this summer.”

Such a scarcity could require relatively brief controlled, rotating outages to manage the grid without lengthier, more extensive blackouts, but not before calling for voluntary conservation through the ISO’s Flex Alert program. The program has been enhanced with sharper messaging and a $12 million statewide advertising and public awareness campaign set to begin this month.

The ISO, which manages about 80 percent of the California electric grid and part of Nevada’s, typically imports electricity from neighboring states and from within California. But during a regional heat wave like last August, energy would be in great demand throughout the west, making imports unavailable. California’s are limited as well due to drought conditions throughout the west that reduce the amount of available hydroelectric power.

Mainzer and his counterparts each listed some of the steps their organizations have taken while working closely together since last summer and after a Root Cause Analysis of the outages requested by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

At the CPUC, President Marybel Batjer said those steps have included:

directing utilities to procure more resources that would effectively add 2.5 percent to the previously required 15 percent reserve capacity;

adopting an emergency load reduction program to quickly shrink demand in an emergency;

ordering investor-owned utilities to modify critical peak pricing programs that charge more for consumption during peak hours on specific days, and;

expanding demand response programs that provide consumers financial incentives to conserve.

The CPUC has also required regulated utilities to add between 3000 and 3500 megawatts of new capacity this summer, as well as a 10-fold increase in battery storage resources that can help meet demand after sunset when solar energy stops and air conditioning use is high.

Mainzer said ISO’s steps taken to fortify the grid include:

clarifying market rules for service to California loads, exports and transfers across the grid;

establishing minimum charging requirements for battery storage resources so they can return energy to the system after sunset during stressed grid conditions;

making sure ISO markets send strong price signals for imports and demand response;

ensuring that planned generator outages do not degrade reliability during periods of peak demand, and;

streamlining the grid interconnection process to expedite new supply.

Perhaps most importantly, Mainzer added, has been the ISO’s extensive work with stakeholders and neighboring balancing authorities to make sure that coordination and clear channels of communication have been established going into summer. The work includes updated analytical models that take account of last year’s weather incidents to provide more accurate forecasts and advance notice of extreme weather events.

“From the operators on the control room floor to our communications department, we have assessed every division to find ways to provide timely, advanced information about grid and weather conditions to promote effective decision making and impactful demand response programs,” Mainzer said.

At the CEC, Commission Chair David Hochschild said his organization has worked on:

improving its energy demand forecasting and extended it from a 10-year horizon to 15 years, with the greater likelihood of extreme weather events factored in;

strengthening reliability assessments of supply and demand under different weather conditions;

evaluating distributed energy such as rooftop solar to better determine how it affects performance and reliability, and;

investing $74 million in grants to support new demand flexibility technologies.

“I would say generally the model is changing from the old view of seeing demand as this fixed thing to now we see where we can manipulate that demand,” Hochschild said. “That’s a really important emerging field.”

As a result of some of the work CEC already has done on this front, he estimated that an additional 25 MW of flexible demand capacity from industrial users and 18 MW from irrigation districts will be available this summer.

As the two-hour hearing began, Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, the committee chair, noted that climate change and its impacts are at the core of what California has been experiencing and its challenges moving forward.

“I cannot stress enough how much a reliable grid underpins our economy and quality of life,” he said. “People depend on electricity for their safety and their well-being, but additionally California is at the vanguard of renewable energy policy. The nation and the world are watching to see how we integrate renewables but also whether we can ensure reliability while doing so.”

With the many challenges California faces with climate change and its transition to clean energy, CPUC President Batjer said the state has no intention of retreating from its ambitious climate policies.

“I want to be clear that our planning and implementation of our clean energy future progresses forward and will only accelerate in the months and years to come,” she said. “The climate change induced events of last August only further crystallize the need to build a more reliable grid by way of zero carbon resources.”

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