Well, that was an interesting few days. Our electric service should work quietly in the background. Instead it made headlines nearly every day. At times it appeared that we were managing our power grid via text alert. That is no way to run essential infrastructure. I’m pretty sure we can all agree on that.
And let’s not forget that we had record-setting heat for much of the week, triple digits across a state that is not accustomed to it or built for it. Since, as the saying goes, this is one of the coolest years of the next few decades, we’ll see more of these. Severe heat waves have significant implications for our health, for the environment, for productivity and the economy, for inequality. We delayed climate action for fifty years, and here we are.
So, what do we take away? Below are some of my thoughts. As always, I look forward to hearing yours in the comments.
In the next few years, grid-connected appliances must supplant alerts.
Text alerts are no way to manage a power grid. Among other things, they lose effectiveness when they are issued too frequently (ahem). CAISO CEO Elliot Mainzer agrees, writing that “I too look forward to the days when Flex Alerts are a thing of the past!”
We need tools deployed sooner rather than later that will help us use more power at the right times with no effort on our part. And if we can make money while using them, so much the better. Smart charging for air conditioners, pool pumps, heaters, and EV chargers will save us money and reduce emissions by invisibly shifting our power to when it’s cheaper, cleaner, and more plentiful. If the peak slowly shifts from summer afternoons to winter mornings as we add more electric heat, we shouldn’t have to know or care.
These tools are being developed, tested, and rolled out all over the state, including by our largest utilities. This won’t happen without some bumps, but it’s important.
In the meantime, maybe we should ditch the alerts anyway.
While frequent alerts may be ineffective at reducing demand, they are particularly good at one thing, namely building distrust in what should be a foundational utility. As someone succinctly put it, “Geez, CAISO, quit asking us to do your job for you!” (1)
Maybe people would be happier, or at least less annoyed, if CAISO quit the pleading and the power just quietly went out with a brief heads-up a few hours beforehand: “The power may go out for an hour or two between 6-9 pm tonight during this record-breaking heat”. Stop asking people to conserve. Many don’t like it, some resent it, and it puts much of the state on edge. Instead, rip off the band-aid. Just a thought.
Power discharged from EV batteries will be a big help.
Today California residents have around 450,000 EVs with a 200-mile range. Most of these EV owners can spare 20 kWh (maybe one-third of their battery) over a 3-hour period on the occasional triple-digit day, and would happily do so when paid for it. That would add up to 3 GW of power for three hours, nearly all of what we need during these events. Even if we only got 1 GW, that would cover much of the shortfall on these super hot summer evenings. This power source will only get bigger as the EV population grows rapidly.
EVs are building in this capability -- some already have it -- but we need to figure out how to quickly and cheaply deploy the solar-like grid infrastructure needed to enable two-way charging much more pervasively while ensuring our grid stays safe and secure.
Minor inconveniences are just that -- minor.
Some people live to kvetch, especially online. But we should be pulling together to deal with small things like a brief power outage, rather than magnifying them and fretting about all the things that might go wrong. In the rare event that someone does have an emergency need to charge an EV just as the power goes out, offer them a ride! The big deal here in my opinion was the heat wave, not the prospect of a brief announced outage.
An effort can be both spectacular and flawed.
I wrote earlier that CAISO’s efforts (and results) this past few days were “spectacular”. They were also clearly flawed. Attempts at particularly difficult or novel things often hit both marks. CAISO had experience and ample preparation, but this heat wave was still very difficult to handle. They forecast and quantified the challenge well and managed to keep the grid largely up with few hitches during a time of great strain. The effort and outcome in my view were spectacular. While there are areas for improvement, and we should call that out, we should appreciate the progress and show some forbearance given the scope of this challenge.
Mitigating and adapting to global warming is not going to be a picnic.
People like to throw around the word “entitled” a lot, particularly with reference to the younger generation. But where I see it when it comes to climate change is in the older generation. We have got to change the way we do things. We have got to stop burning fossil fuels. We have got to move away from gas and towards cleaner fuels. And we have to do it sooner rather than later.
Yes, that may mean things are a little messy sometimes. We look ridiculous operating our grid via text alert. But, you know what, it worked. It may not work over and over, but we’ll keep learning and we’ll keep improving. And in the meantime, California is reducing its emissions faster and more transformatively than most other states and even countries. That is what innovation looks like. I am extremely grateful to live in a state that is making such an effort and doing it in a disciplined fashion.
It’s not that people don’t like change.
Finally, I don’t think the pushback is coming because people don’t like change. People clearly like change. We follow the latest fashions, travel to new places, check out new restaurants first thing. Sometimes I think people are heat-seeking missiles for novelty. I find this sniping that “Well, they just don’t like change” to be dismissive at best and plainly incorrect. I think instead what (most) people don’t like is change that leaves them feeling out of control. Even though CAISO has a structured and carefully considered program for dealing with grid strain, calling everything an Emergency and issuing appeals to residents leaves customers feeling like they and their grid are not in control.
We need to do a better job of laying out where the grid is headed and where we are on that path. When people don’t understand that, an event like this can leave them feeling anxious because the state seems to be winging it.
Now that you have a chance to reflect, I’d be interested to hear what’s going through your mind after this past week.
Notes and References
1. By the way, it’s not just California that does this. Texas does this too. And I get it, it saves a lot of money while avoiding outages. But it can also erode trust.
Current Climate Data (July 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
Interesting fact: EV batteries are in many cases outlasting the cars themselves. As a result, there has been a steady stream of slightly depleted EV batteries going to solar farms, and battery recycling firms are being starved of material.
I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines or your comment may be edited or removed.
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based and refer to reputable sources.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.