CA Electric Power Chief Says Serious Problems Lie Ahead

Published April 19, 2021

The head of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) recently gave a revealing interview, in an obscure outlet he probably figured would not travel. It is “Yale Insights” published by the Yale School of Management. Elliot Mainzer, President and CEO of CAISO is a Yalie, so he gave something back.

Actually he gave a lot out, if you read the poli-speak correctly. Serious problems lie ahead. Below are some interesting insights, with translation where needed.

First, Mainzer explains his job: “CAISO operates the high-voltage transmission system and the energy market for about 80% of California and a small portion of Nevada. Were the entity that matches the real-time supply of electricity with demand and is responsible for efficiently integrating the next generation of clean energy resources into the grid. In addition to our fundamental responsibility as a primarily single-state independent system operator, increasingly were taking on broader functions across the western United States. Those include monitoring reliability and operating an energy imbalance market that lets us buy and sell energy with the Northwest, the Intermountain West, and the desert Southwest.”

So CASIO’s job is to keep the lights on, just like ERCOT in Texas. It is a little scary to learn that California is also operating the energy imbalance market for the entire Western Interconnection, which is the western grid covering about a third of contiguous America. So if California goes black, which is increasingly likely, maybe the western grid goes with it!

As for last summer’s blackouts, Mainzer of course blames climate change. But he then goes on to finger solar power, saying this:

“California hadn’t planned for enough capacity to be available in the net peak period to ride out a super heating event effectively. As people are coming home in the evening, turning on appliances, ramping up air conditioners to cool down their houses, thats the maximum point of stress on the system. That net peak, just after sunset, is also when over 10,000 megawatts of solar power stop generating. For most of the day, solar effectively acts like negative load, reducing demand for electricity from other resources. As the sun sets, those other resources have to ramp up rapidly to meet the load on the system. California just did not have enough dispatchable capacity available to meet demand. The resource adequacy planning and procurement standards hadnt quite kept up.” (Emphasis added.)

So they failed to notice that the sun goes down. Sounds about right for California. I think his “hadn’t quite kept up” is wildly understated poli-speak.

Along the way Mainzer actually admits that the intermittency of renewables is the fundamental problem. Here is how he puts it, referring again to last year’s blackouts:

The wind and solar energy resources performed largely as anticipated. But they are fuel-displacement resources that provide carbon-free energy to the system. We know they dont provide dispatchable capacity, so we need to pair them with other resources. Certainly, the changes that are underway in the power system were contributing factors to what happened in August in California. Clearly, we need to accelerate and get better at that pairing. Its going to be the critical factor over time in maintaining reliability.”

Of course his dispatchable “other resources” are future technologies that do not exist, rather than the obvious nuclear, coal and gas resources that California is busy shutting down. This is wishful thinking, not power planning.

Here is the so-called plan: “Its going to take a portfolio approach, opening up new fuels, new storage technologies, investments in energy efficiency, and demand response. California is starting to look at off-shore wind. Were exploring new energy-storage technologies that can supply power for longer durations compared to the four-hour duration of lithium ion batteries.”

The principle is clear however. Renewables must be paired with dispatchable power.

As for the coming hot summer, Mainzer is justifiably worried. He points out that there is almost no new dispatchable capacity compared to last year:

Were not expecting a ton of new capacity to be coming online between now and the summer; its too tight a timeframe. But the incremental dispatchable capacity resource that is coming on the grid is roughly 2,000 megawatts of lithium ion batteries, which can discharge electricity into the grid during that net peak period of maximum strain on the system, just after sunset on hot summer nights.”

Note that 2000 MW of storage does not make up for the 10,000 MW of solar lost when the sun goes down. Moreover, that 2000 MW is just the battery discharge rate, not the storage amount, which is measured in MWh. If 10,000 MW of solar are lost for 16 hours, which is standard, that is 160,000 MWh of juice. The batteries are only good for 4 hours, which is a mere 8,000 MWh or almost nothing compared to the lost solar. Batteries are a joke in cases like this.

As for the long term transition, electrification is a major issue. He notes that:

We will also need additional capacity to support the electrification of the vehicle fleet and to take the place of fossil fuel systems that are coming offline. The California Public Utilities Commission is making sure that the utilities have the incentives and cost-recovery mechanisms to buy expanded capacity. CAISO and the big transmission owners in California need to make sure that the grid, substations, and transmission lines are updated, expanded, and modernized at a pace that will ensure that as new resources come online, they can be physically connected to the system. The people I work with are incredibly dedicated. Its really challenging, but its also inspiring to be part of this clean energy transition.

No word on what all this huge dispatchable new capacity, that is neither fossil or nuclear, will be. Wind is also not dispatchable. It must be magic! There is nothing left but magic.

And of course all this new magical capacity and a beefed up grid to handle it will cost a huge fortune. Here Mainzer’s talent for politically correct gross understatement really shows up. He simply says this: “The rate increases needed to accomplish this clean energy transition could get unwieldy if its not managed very effectively.”

Unwieldy? How about crushing, or punitive? We are talking about potentially trillions of dollars.

He does manage to squeeze in a good poke at the free riding rooftop solar buyers: “There are also concerns about equity. People who are purchasing rooftop solar and batteries are leaving behind significant fixed costs to be paid for by a shrinking pool of consumers. Many of those consumers cant afford to buy their way off the grid.

In true California style, CAISO President Mainzer even manages to finish up with a howling contradiction: “The state is full speed ahead towards meeting its clean energy objectives while understanding that energy rates and equity are critical variables that need to be addressed.

There is no affordable way to power an electrified California without fossil fuels and nuclear power. In fact it is physically impossible at any price. The CAISO should be saying this, loudly and often. But at least they quietly admit there are problems.

The full interview is here:

[Originally posted on Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT)]