With more than 4 million acres burned this year – shattering a state record – California’s wildfire season came with a wicked ferocity, along with the climate-induced crises of crippling heatwaves and forced power outages.
On August 14, 2018, Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.
New wildfires ravaged bone-dry California during a scorching Labor Day weekend that saw a dramatic airlift of more than 200 people trapped by flames and ended with the state’s largest utility turning off power to 172,000 customers to try to prevent its power lines and other equipment from sparking more fires.
Move over, Australia — California has stolen the claim for largest battery installation in the world. In the middle of a vicious heatwave where demand for air conditioning led to rolling blackouts, an energy development company called LS Power was working hard to add more lithium-ion batteries to its Gateway Energy Storage project in San Diego.
Last month as a heat wave slammed California, state regulators sent an email to a group of energy executives pleading for help. “Please consider this an urgent inquiry on behalf of the state,” the message said.
State officials threw a lifeline to four fossil fueled power plants along the Southern California coast, deciding the facilities are still needed to provide reliable electricity even as they contribute to the climate crisis.
Tuesday’s vote by the State Water Resources Control Board to let the gas plants keep operating past the end of this year followed brief rolling blackouts over two evenings last month, as a heat wave caused air conditioning demand to soar, and California found itself short on electricity supplies.
The sad reality is that the blackouts rolling across California this past week were both predictable and avoidable. The silver lining is that future blackouts across California are avoidable – if we invest in large-scale energy storage projects to provide on-demand power.
Energy analysts have warned for years that California’s embrace of renewable energy sources – while laudable – create significant risks that can and should be addressed to sustain our economy and quality of life while maintaining progress toward the state’s climate goals. What no one could have known was that we’d be roiled by a pandemic and a recession when the energy grid’s weaknesses were exposed for everyone to see.
The sad reality is that the blackouts rolling across California this week were both predictable and avoidable. The silver lining is that future blackouts across California are avoidable – if we invest in large-scale energy storage projects to provide on-demand power.
If you were building an electrical grid from scratch (with no regard to regulations or finance), then long-duration energy storage would be a requisite. It just makes sense — store energy when it’s cheap and/or abundant, and discharge when the price is high, or the energy is needed by the grid. Use it to load-shift, peak-shift and smooth; to replace fossil-fuel-fired peaker plants; and to integrate intermittent renewable resources onto the grid.
Long-duration storage fits in with what utilities, independent system operators, and regional transmission operators understand. “Most utilities seem to want much longer-duration storage systems, with 6 to 12 hours discharge, to do serious load-shaping over the day,” suggests an analyst at a U.S. energy think tank. Some of these expectations are being driven by the performance of pumped hydro, once the only source of grid-connected storage.
Economically viable long-duration energy storage could accelerate solar and wind penetration, grid resiliency, and serve to stabilize volatile energy prices. But, long-duration energy storage will not become pervasive until regulators adapt to the capabilities of the technology.