EDITOR'S NOTE: This article makes an appropriate bookend to Sophia's!
It's hot here in California, fry an egg on the sidewalk style hot, and the grid is feeling the heat. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) - the entity responsible for managing the grid - has issued warnings about possible outages, and even our local utility, Pasadena Water & Power, sent out emails to customers warning that cutoffs might be necessary. The extreme conditions have prompted some extreme reactions, blaming the State's shift to more and more renewables as the cause of the problem. But overlooked in all of this is the contribution of local solar power systems, "behind the meter," that have greatly improved the present situation, and with more aggressive utilization of storage, could do even more. Here's our take...
Let's start by looking at what is causing the present problem. As we all know too well, we are in the middle of a pandemic and conditions in California have been depressingly awful, with a 7-day moving average of new cases at nearly 9,000. As a result, a lot more people than usual are working from home, driving up electricity loads as we struggle to remain sane, and if possible, cool. That's been tough, as the entire state is in the grip of a week-long heat wave, with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, and in some places, above 110! All of that has created record demands for electricity and the grid has struggled to meet that need, with spot prices hitting all-time highs.
For those opposed to California's efforts to "green the grid," this provides an opportunity to go on offense. Cue Republican Assemblymember, and Vice-Chair of the Committee on Utilities and Energy, Jim Patterson:
You can't run a 21st century economy that's the fifth largest on the planet with wind and solar. I have been warning over and over again that the policies coming out of the democrat-controlled legislature and Governors' office are creating the conditions for blackouts and brownouts and here we are seeing the evidence.
Wow, just how wrong can you be? Let's be clear: no 21st-century economy is going to survive the century if we don't figure out how to do so with solar, wind and other, non-fossil-fuel-based sources of electricity. And despite the predictable piling on from climate change deniers, there are multiple paths ahead for getting to an all-green electric grid.
Behind the Meter to the Rescue!
All of the stories about the blackouts, however, ignore the contribution - both present and future - of behind the meter resources, that is, local, rooftop solar. Our friends over at CALSSA sent out the following graph that helps to make those contributions concrete:
There's a lot going on here so let's break it down. The brown curve is the actual reported demand data from CAISO on August 14th. But without the contributions from the million plus behind-the-meter solar installations the actual load would have been significantly greater, as shown by the yellow line. That is capacity the ratepayers of California did not have to purchase, but still benefited from its production. Moreover, as the yellow line shows, the peak demand is actually at 3 p.m., but thanks to behind-the-meter installations, the peak on the grid is both lower, and later, a fact not often explained to the public.
The vertical lines mark the period last Friday that was subject to rolling blackouts - from roughly 7 to 10 p.m. As the merger of the yellow and brown lines around that time indicate, solar production is no longer a factor. But there is still a role to play as storage begins to be deployed with ever greater frequency. CALSSA's policy director, Brad Heavner (who created this illustration), notes:
If California builds 3 GW of additional energy storage systems at customer locations that can be dispatched during grid shortages, it would further trim evening peak needs. This is shown in the figure as the dotted blue line. CALSSA estimates the state can achieve this level of build-out within the next five years with state policies.
This is certainly doable, but it will take ongoing financial support, and preferably a more transparent rebate program than the present, byzantine SGIP program.
Ironically, the utilities are pushing their customers into purchasing more storage, as the public's patience with grid outages - whether from rolling blackouts, or utility initiated public safety power shutoffs - is at an all-time low. As sophisticated products like the Enphase Energy Ensemble Storage system become available, more and more solar consumers will become storage consumers as well. Once again, the ratepaying public will benefit from those investments, and hopefully all of us will be able to keep our cool!