Did an emergency text message keep our lights on? Yes and no

Wind-driven generators capture and deliver energy. (Photo: VG Foto, via Shutterstock)

OPINION. When Californians received an emergency text alert recently urging them to cut energy use, they probably didn’t know how much they were needed to avoid power outages. Electricity demand almost surpassed supply during a record heat wave worsened by climate change. And yet, unlike August 2020, outages never came.

California’s grid operators pulled off what seemed to be a miracle. This achievement was complex, but state policies that have added new solar, wind, and batteries were crucial, along with unprecedented electricity demand management tactics like those text messages. Clean energy technologies helped keep our grid running.

But climate change and extreme temperatures aren’t going away. State officials can act now by planning to better manage demand and accelerating deployment of clean energy, including offshore wind and geothermal alongside solar and batteries, to ensure we comfortably beat the heat.

This text message was followed almost immediately by a roughly 2,000 MW reduction in electricity demand.

Over the last two years, California has invested in adding clean energy from solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines. During the heat wave’s hottest day on Sept. 6, almost 2,000 more megawatts (MW) of renewables supplied electricity to the state compared to the hottest day of the August 2020 heat wave – enough to power more than 300,000 homes.

People may think additional solar doesn’t help meet high power demand when the sun sets, but those new solar panels were charging thousands of new batteries all day. Those batteries then supplied nearly 3,000 MW of power to the grid when we needed it most. In contrast, during the 2020 heat event, battery power reached a maximum of about 100 MW, just 5 percent of what was available this time around.

California’s grid operators bolstered these new clean energy resources by using the emergency alert system for electricity demand, sending residents a text message asking them to conserve power. This text message was followed almost immediately by a roughly 2,000 MW reduction in electricity demand, equal to the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant’s output. This strategy, called “demand response,” is one of the best options in our reliability toolbox because it doesn’t require new power plants.

While this performance was impressive, relying on emergency alerts is a risky long-term approach. Instead, state officials can automate the process using existing technology to better tap this vast potential to reduce or shift electricity usage.

“Aggregators,” like Tesla’s Virtual Power Plant or OhmConnect, are employing tools like smart thermostats to simultaneously shift usage from thousands of customers to times of lower demand. They even pay people for altering their energy use, via California’s electricity markets, given the value it provides to the entire state.

So what does the recent heat wave mean for our future? With worsening heat, California must stay focused on adding new renewables and batteries as quickly as possible while implementing comprehensive automated demand response programs.

Accelerating clean energy buildout is crucial to meeting growing electricity demand while cutting power plant pollution—gas was still the biggest share of the state’s electricity supply on the hottest day of the heat wave.

California is already acting. The state legislature demonstrated its commitment last month by passing ambitious climate legislation including a 90 percent clean electricity target by 2035. And the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is ensuring state utilities invest in enough renewable energy to hit 86 percent clean electricity by 2032.

Succeeding involves overcoming obstacles like delays implementing the CPUC’s 2021 reliability procurement order, which requires enough new clean energy to power 2.5 million homes. Hurdles to reaching the plan’s targets include long wait times to connect to the grid and lingering supply chain issues. Unfortunately, the public lacks clear data attributing delays to these causes or identifying others. Regulators should transparently track and report sources of delays to quickly address barriers to building reliability infrastructure.

Having a broader set of resources is also critical. California is smartly thinking ahead here, too, recently targeting up to 5,000 MW of offshore wind energy by 2030. Geothermal energy, currently being tapped in the Salton Sea, could be another useful clean power source.

Though we all breathed a sigh of relief after making it through this crisis, California’s leaders must add more of these clean resources to our grid, so we can rest easier in a hotter, drier future.

Editor’s Note: Anand Gopal is the executive director of policy research at Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan energy and environmental firm. Michelle Solomon is a  policy analyst. 

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