JUICE: Loads of Capacity

By Published On: January 30, 2014

The first time male gloved hands shoved me into an overflowing commuter train in Tokyo, I had the wind knocked out of me after getting slammed against and up a pole. After slowly sliding back down, I helped a fellow passenger untangle his glasses from my hair. I didn’t get used to the Tokyo subway stuffers smashing us human overflow into trains but did learn some basic survival skills. That included commuting during off-peak hours when possible on the same trains, which are comfortable. Like commuters on an over-packed subway, renewable electrons are facing a similar fate. During intermittent renewable energy rush hours, the grid on this side of the Pacific Ocean gets too packed. When wind and solar energy floods into California’s transmission lines, the grid operator has its hands full controlling the overflow. In other hours, the flow of solar and wind resources tapers off dramatically, leaving the grid nice and roomy. Utilities are working to reach and possibly exceed a 33 percent alternative energy standard. The major public and private utilities raised concerns in a Jan. 17 study that the state’s well-intentioned push to continue to grow the amount of renewable energy to 50 percent or higher could lead to an uncontrollable surfeit of electricity. A 50 percent renewables standard, for example, is estimated to produce a surplus 12,000 GWh over 2,000 hours/year without proper planning, according to the study. Grid operators are trying to figure out how to pack or eject electrons to avoid over-generation on a grid that is a century old and unable to accommodate the amount and type of supply growth. To protect the grid and avoid the equivalent of pole slamming or worse, thinking outside the California grid box is needed. California isn’t an island. We don’t have to be a 38 million-person cul de sac that has to absorb, divert and waste excess peak flows from a renewables build-out. A solid idea that is gaining traction is to think and act regionally. Instead of achieving the equivalent of endless generation strip malls in every corner of the state, a West-wide version of a California Independent System Operator (in addition to the current grid operator) may avert over-generation in the name of intermittent renewables. “If you can run a West-wide market, you may not have to replace electricity” from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s shutdown, Jon Wellinghoff, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chair told Current. He added, expanding the reach of the grid also “can reduce the reserve margin” now in play in the state. He was referring to the concept included in the January utility report of enlarging the limited regional trading market between PacifiCorp and the California Independent System Operator to access more resources. This planned expansion of what’s called an energy “imbalance market” aims to fill in short-term supply gaps beyond today’s grid limitations. This energy imbalance market is expected to allow participating grid operators, or “balancing authorities,” to participate in a voluntary real-time energy market and enhance grid reliability, responsiveness, and integration of renewable power as well as cut wholesale energy costs. Significant increases in the amount of wind and solar power require grid operators to hold additional flexible generation in reserve to account for the variability of renewable resources, which depend on weather conditions. Without an imbalance market, operators rely on generation assets within their balancing authority for last-minute adjustments. If the grid operators in the West can agree on the specifics, it would keep California from cramming in too much renewable electricity. The greener juice would be exported and used by other states. California also could import more excess power from other states. Building a modernized electricity system—including cleaner generation projects, upgraded transmission lines, and gas-fired power plants—to meet forecasted 21st century requirements is a big expense for ratepayers. So too are all other utility programs—energy efficiency bonuses for utility shareholders, “smart” meters, communication installations on the grid, and other investments. For every project, there’s an environmental footprint. Foxes, tortoises, and condors feel the encroachment. Without more aggressive moves to schedule rush-hour trains of generation, California utilities, grid operators, and developers are going to continue stuffing over-generation into the constrained state queue. It’s costly, wasteful and potentially harmful. When the California Independent System Operator trumpeted the agreement between it and PacifiCorp, more significantly it was a move in the direction of scheduling more transportation instead of stuffing too many electrons into a limited number of trains. That is particularly true because the Bonneville Power Administration is watching and waiting in the wings. However, there are a lot of old grudges from the days of “Californication” of the Pacific Northwest, thus lots of unknowns. Whether there is sufficient profit to offset regional differences remains to be seen. Also, a West-wide grid could hurt consumers if it’s open to manipulation. But if we all learn at least basic survival skills, it will help us commuters, grid traffic cops—gloved or otherwise—and the environment.

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