California seems to be in the eye of the storm at the moment when it comes to the impacts of climate change. Images of yellow smoke-filled skies are proliferating news sources and social media, the result of wildfires that are seasonal for the state due to hot and dry weather, but that this year have burned through over 5 million acres already, worse than any year in the history books. The season for wildfires usually continues until December and may continue to force people to stay at home due to the air quality, further impacting businesses already reeling from the restrictions imposed by COVID-19.
California also saw major power outages last month, causing a blackout for over 100,000 households. Initial investigations suggest that the heatwave ramped up demand from air conditioning units just as the reduced wind, helping the heatwave, resulted in a drop in wind power supply. Critics allege that this demonstrates the flaws in relying on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, energy sources that cannot be relied on whatever the weather; that this emphasises the need to invest in natural gas and nuclear capacity and slow down the shift to renewables. Others, including the president of the organisation in charge of the state grid, blame the increasing pressures of climate change and baseload energy suppliers that failed to do their job. Others still blame poor grid management.
The debate is heavily politicised and is causing a lot of friction in the democratic state. What we know is that the heatwave across California is a sign of global warming (whether you disagree with the theory of this being human induced is beside the point), reducing water sources needed for hydroelectric power and putting intense pressure on the energy system. The last five years have been the hottest on record, and the state is just coming out of a six-year drought. The highest temperature ever recorded in the US was measured in Death Valley in Eastern California on 16 August this year at a scorching 54.4°C.
We also know that California currently sources 30% of energy supply from renewable sources, with a goal to reach 60% by 2030. Much of this growth will come from new solar and wind investments, which currently provide 20% of the state’s electricity needs. These sources will continue to be supported by gas-powered plants, supply from neighbouring states and the one remaining nuclear plant at Diablo canyon for baseload power.
The fact that solar and wind power oscillates over the day and year means that the management of energy grids is becoming more complicated, while demand for electricity continues to increase due to electrification of the economy, and climate change impacts the availability of hydroelectric energy and demands for cooling. This is very well understood for grid operators and policy makers, and California is not the first to manage this. So what went wrong?
One of the reasons for the blackouts was that gas energy plants that are supposed to provide power at these times failed to operate, for unknown reasons, and water levels at the hydroelectric plants were low which reduced their output. Additionally, California’s grid managers have warned the state for years that demand could outstrip supply, and energy experts highlight that demand was in fact not even at record levels. But even if blame were to sit with renewables, can the problem be solved?
The green energy industry rate of innovation has been extraordinary over the last decade and continues to be so. Many solutions are being developed – massive lithium ion battery fields to store energy, small-scale solar installations on people’s homes with battery systems which effectively help to take households off the grid. These can come in the form of EVs, charging from the solar power during the day and providing a source of energy through the night. Batteries can only store energy over short durations however, but there are hopes to develop a ‘strategic power reserve’ similar to the current Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that could store renewables-produced hydrogen fuel.
Further innovation comes in the form of demand response, not a new process of adapting demand at certain times to help balance supply and demand. Traditionally this is done by incentivising energy users, usually industrial users, to reduce or eliminate non-essential usage at peak times; this can be accelerated using smart meters and thermostats in offices and people’s homes. For example, thermostats could pre-cool homes during off-peak times, reducing the demand during peak time events. These were all used to a degree in August, but there is a possibility that they can provide more and do so at shorter notice.
Enormous change in any industry will experience periods of political stress, consumer upset and crisis management. But experience tells us that blips in the road do not stop the continuous push forward, and the wildfires in California highlight why we can’t afford to let them.
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