Even before California’s rolling power outages threatened to become a full-on crisis in the last few days, long-standing critics of the state’s aggressive push into renewable energy were sharpening their knives.
Solar power, they said, had failed California, never mind that state officials never expected the sun to keep shining into the night.
The Wall Street Journal’s famously conservative editorial board was particularly gleeful Sunday, calling brief blackouts the previous two evenings “a warning to the rest of America about the risks of Green New Deal policies.” President Trump echoed the theme Tuesday, tweeting that the “Bernie/Biden/AOC Green New Deal plan would take California’s failed policies to every American!”
The president of California’s power grid operator, Stephen Berberich, dismissed those types of criticisms, saying renewable energy wasn’t to blame for the outages. The real problem, he said, was a statewide failure to assemble the right mix of energy sources for the completely predictable situation of electricity demand staying high after the sun goes down.
Although the exact causes of the blackouts are still up for debate — some critics have blamed the California Independent System Operator for poor management of energy markets — there’s no question that lining up enough power on hot summer evenings is one of the main challenges California must confront as it continues to phase out fossil fuels.
Fortunately, experts say, there are many possible clean energy solutions.
Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered utilities to add 3,300 megawatts of new power capacity, most of which is expected to be big batteries connected to the power grid. But that’s a small fraction of what the state may ultimately need.
California celebrated a milestone last year with the completion of its 1 millionth small solar system, primarily rooftop installations. Now clean energy advocates want the state to pursue 1 million small batteries.
The end goal is for networks of far-flung solar panels and storage systems to operate as “virtual power plants” that can help electric utilities meet demand, including during heat waves. Homes and businesses would sign up for programs in which they’d agree to occasionally discharge their batteries in unison when called upon, in exchange for financial compensation.
“It takes the Flex Alert and puts it on speed,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Assn., a trade group. “It’s not just, ‘Turn off your lights and set your thermostat to 78.’ It’s do those things and give us 5 kilowatt-hours from your battery in your garage. And we’ll pay you for it.”
Several government-run energy providers in the San Francisco Bay Area have plans for one of the largest virtual power plants yet. But Del Chiaro said big utility companies and state regulators, including the Public Utilities Commission and the Independent System Operator, are biased toward traditional power plants and have mostly failed to embrace the concept.