Energy storage can keep the lights on, cut carbon emissions

Electrical power lines in the California desert. (Photo: Anton Foltin, via Shutterstock)

Most of us won’t forget those rolling blackouts that took place across California in early 2000.  I remember them well, since I was the one who had to manage the power grid and turn off the lights more than a dozen times.

Since then, energy engineers and operators like myself have made a life’s work out of keeping the lights on as California works to reduce carbon emissions and add more renewable energy into the power grid to meet California’s clean energy goals.

California is going to need a lot more of it and other long-duration storage technologies if we are going to be able to meet the state’s clean energy goals.

The challenge is this: California remains dependent on natural gas plants and imported power from other states to meet demand in the evening when the sun goes down and solar energy isn’t available.

Today, we are using up to 15,000 megawatts of natural gas and imported energy to meet peak demand. That is about three times the entire demand of the state of Nevada. It’s massive. And, it’s in direct conflict with California’s carbon reduction goals.

As an energy operations guy, I am forever concerned about impacts to grid operations from state laws and policies that make keeping the lights on a challenge.  I am equally concerned, however, that those overseeing the decisions for the state’s long-term clean energy and economic success aren’t getting behind the best asset we have to assure resources are there when we need them.

I am referring to long-duration bulk energy storage, a solution that could meet the challenge.

It’s pumped hydro, and it is one type of bulk energy storage technology that has been operating in California and around the world for decades. It pumps water uphill when the sun is shining or wind is blowing, and then releases it to power turbines when renewable energy isn’t available.

California is going to need a lot more of it and other long-duration storage technologies if we are going to be able to meet the state’s clean energy goals. Battery storage and other emerging storage technologies may help fill the need, but we also need proven, time-tested storage solutions that can store large amounts of renewable energy.

Currently, we have limited capacity to store excess renewable energy – the generation of which often does not neatly follow demand. In fact, we actually have to pay other states to take it. With bulk energy storage, when we have an extra, unused 700 or 800 megawatts of energy, we would be able to store it, not pay others to take it away. That is a much better deal for ratepayers.

Considering how fast California wants to ramp up renewable energy production – to 60 percent renewable by 2030 and 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2045 – adding storage is quite simply the only way to get there. The fallacy is when we chase our renewable goals by increasing reliance on gas-fired power plants any carbon reductions are offset and wasted. It makes no sense.

Every single elected leader and regulator in this state should be very clear about the stakes. California is facing a real problem of heavy reliance on an aging natural gas fleet and diminishing imported resources as surrounding states also set ambitious renewable energy goals.  It’s a time bomb.

The backwards economics of our inability to store clean energy should be a wake-up call for the need to invest in new storage solutions. It should not take the lights going off again for the state to do what is needed to achieve its own goals. Let’s get it right now.

Editor’s Note: Jim McIntosh has over 40 years of California grid operations management experience, including overseeing the California Independent System Operator’s control center.

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