How California Blackouts Will Make Solar and Batteries A National Story

Zephaniah 1:15 Trouble and darkness

Article By: Bill Roth


California again faces potential blackouts. This time it is tied to a natural gas storage facility called Aliso Canyon owned by Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas. The site’s ability to deliver energy was crippled by a natural gas leak described as an ecological disaster comparable to the BP oil rig explosion. State officials worry that this key facility will not be able to deliver sufficient supplies to California’s natural gas generating plants during summer peak electricity demands.

Imagine islands of light fueled by solar connected to batteries
Here’s how solar & distributed generation could become national news this summer: It is 7 p.m., & Los Angeles is blacked out. It’s the 3rd day of a blistering heat wave made more intense by global warming. People cut back on their air conditioning in the 1st 2 days in response to public service announcements to “save the grid.” But on that 3rd evening, it was still over a 100 degrees from the valley to the beaches. Everyone decided they had to get cooler. Collectively they only moved their thermostats back down just a couple of degrees. But that was enough. The increased draw of electricity overwhelmed the grid. It automatically shut down bc it just could not produce & deliver any more electricity.

But across LA, there are customers w/power. They have lights. Even more importantly, they have air conditioning. Customers flock to these businesses. Neighbors walk over to ask their solar-powered neighbor about how they still have electricity.

The press see a media opportunity. Camera crews show up in front of the homes & businesses that have electricity bc of solar systems connected to batteries. They ask questions about cost & find that these customers are actually saving money too. Then the reporters turn to the camera & ask, “Could this be the next iPhone-like technology breakthrough that California creates for all of us?”

California’s push to make solar & batteries the lower-cost, more reliable solution
California leads the nation in solar installations. The state has almost 500,000 solar systems representing approximately 4,000 megawatts.

California is also pioneering how battery systems can displace fossil fuel generation. California passed legislation in 2010 that mandates grid-scale electricity storage. In 2013, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) set a target for the state’s utilities to develop over a gigawatt of energy storage by 2020. In 2014, the CPUC overruled utility efforts at blunting or stopping customers from connecting their onsite solar system to battery systems. California also started a behind-the-meter battery incentive program. The combined result is that California has over 11 megawatts of behind-the-meter batteries representing 80% of the nation’s behind-the-meter battery capacity.

This solar-plus-battery push by California is being driven by 3 factors:

(1) Global warming public policy. The state’s leadership believes global warming is real & a threat to human & economic health. They are pursuing public policy that targets a 40% reduction in global warming emissions below 1990 levels by 2030.

(2) A focus on lowering customer electricity bills. California’s price of grid electricity is 1 the highest in the U.S. Counterintuitively, California’s focus is not on the price per kilowatt-hour, but on the size of electricity bills. This focus explains the state’s emphasis on energy-efficiency technologies & Zero Net Energy building codes. This focus explains California’s commitment to customer-owned solar. Now the state is pursuing battery technology as the next technological step for enabling cleaner, lower-cost & more reliable electricity.

(3) Economic growth. California is outpacing all other states in economic growth. Since the Great Recession, it has added more jobs than the entire population of Nevada or Nebraska or the combined populations of Delaware, South Dakota & Alaska. It is achieving this scale of economic development success while also reducing the state’s global warming emissions. From smart thermostats to solar to batteries, California is focused on selling its technology solutions to the world as part of the state’s economic development strategy.

A global solution to blackouts
Solving blackouts is a 4th reason for California’s commercialization pursuit of solar-plus-battery technologies. Blackouts are rare. But they do happen. Local blackouts occur when a car hits a power pole. They happen when severe weather damages lines. More rarely, outages can occur at the generation & transmission levels. Generation can go offline when coal piles freeze or natural gas is curtailed. Transmissions lines can fail if placed under too much load & heat.

In today’s digital world, a blackout has a significant & often high cost. California is creating the commercial path for avoiding this cost. It may be on display this summer if state warnings of a potential blackout are realized. If this happens, then this blackout could launch another California clean-tech innovation into national awareness. It might be the event that accelerates the day when most homes & businesses in the U.S. have a solar-plus-battery power system.

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