Blackouts, Blazes, and BESS: How Energy Storage Can Mitigate California’s Electricity Woes

Serving a population of over 40 million people and more than 14 million housing units across an area larger than Italy or Japan, California’s electric grid is the most complex of any U.S. state.

However, reliably providing power to all 40 million Californians can be a struggle at times, even with upwards of 80,000 MW installed electric generation capacity across more than 1,500 power plants of all different kinds (per the California Energy Commission’s 2018 report on Total System Electric Generation). While California’s grid meets daily peak demands during normal conditions – today’s forecasted peak is just above 35,000 MW, with around 46,000 MW of available capacity – the state’s electrical resources are pushed to their limit when extreme conditions are brought to bear.

An Unprecedented Crisis

In particular, extended heat waves and seemingly endless wildfires, coupled with persistent drought conditions and intense winds (fire tornadoes, anyone?), have repeatedly crippled the grid. Labor Day weekend saw temperatures soar across the state, with numerous cities breaking all-time temperature records for the month of September. (Riverside, for instance, hit 117°F, just a degree short of its all-time high of 118°.)

An aggressive heat wave on a holiday weekend when everyone wants to blast their AC definitely doesn’t bode well for grid stability, especially when most people are already at home due to a pandemic. This prompted CAISO to send out their latest round of Flex Alerts – statewide calls for consumers to reduce electricity use – in an effort to avert potential rolling power shutdowns to manage overwhelming power demands.

Then there are the fires.

A World of Smoke

California’s 2020 wildfire season is already the most extensive in its history. The result of a “perfect storm” of conditions in mid-August, thousands of lightning strikes (and one incredibly boneheaded gender reveal party) sparked hundreds of simultaneous fires, which have so far burned more than 3.7 million acres of land. To put things into perspective, the 2018 wildfire season – in which the Camp, Woolsey, Thomas, Carr, and Mendocino Complex Fires ravaged the state – scorched 1.9 million acres. We still have October and November to get through.

California’s 2020 wildfire season, the most destructive in state history and still ongoing, heavily contributed to grid outages. (Image via Adobe Stock.)

While these infernos are tragic enough, their capacity to disrupt power production and damage electrical equipment makes them even more of a threat. During one especially brutal weekend, fires had taken out 1,600 MW of generation across the state by Saturday afternoon, which contributed to CAISO issuing a stage 2 emergency warning of shutdowns. That amount of generation going down when every little bit of power is needed is detrimental, forcing the ISO’s and utilities’ hands when distribution is already sparse.

Thus, the million (multi-billion, in actuality) dollar question: how can California keep its lights on?

Storage as a Solution

One obvious candidate just so happens to be the rising star of the energy industry—battery energy storage. While pairing batteries with generating resources – as with PV+Storage – isn’t a brand new concept by any stretch, Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) have only achieved more mainstream recognition and implementation by utilities these past few years.

2020 has emerged as a battery boom of sorts in the Golden State, as storage capacity within the CAISO ecosystem is expected to skyrocket to more than six times what it was at the start of the year. This summer has been particularly exciting: the largest energy storage site in the country came online in San Diego County, a 40 MWh front-of-meter energy storage system in SCE territory was given the green light, construction began on PG&E and Tesla’s 730 MWh Moss Landing BESS… and we at Trimark committed to partnering with Azelio on more than 45 MW of their energy storage projects!

With battery storage systems establishing themselves as a mainstay of the energy industry, it stands to reason that their unique benefits – chief among them grid resiliency, storing excess energy during peak production, and mitigating the infamous “Duck Curve” – are readily available to address California’s recent power struggles.

No Simple Matter

That wasn’t precisely the case in recent weeks, as numerous BESS site operators reportedly only sold a fraction of their power during the last wave of shutdowns. The issue? They either never got the go-ahead from power authorities, or the call to push power to the grid came too late.

Simply put, it’s not enough to build such BESS sites—power authorities need to make the most out of them. When they have been leveraged, however, BESS sites have done their part to improve grid stability at the behest of officials these past several weeks, with hundreds of MW of power supplied to the grid during blackouts.

A drop in the bucket perhaps, but it’s a start, and a trend that needs to continue ramping up. Steve Berberich, the outgoing President and CEO of CAISO, predicts that California will need as much as 15,000 MW of BESS installations for the state’s grid to completely phase out carbon by 2045. If we assume that power shortages – regardless of what causes them – will strike again in subsequent years, we’ll need those batteries sooner rather than later.

Certainly, the solution to the issue at hand – providing power to all Californians during extreme conditions – is complex and multifaceted, especially for a state that imports more than 20% of its power on a normal day. Still, BESS provides a path forward, if only one en route to a road of possible (and necessary) solutions. It won’t happen overnight, but with many more batteries and a better understanding of how and when to use them, California might just be able to keep the lights on.

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