Preempt Blackouts in California: A Black Mark For System Reliability

Power


In early October, the three agencies charged with overseeing and coordinating California’s electric grid provided a preliminary report to Governor Newsom on the causes of the electric blackouts of August 14th and 15th.

These blackouts were not the result of sudden and unexpected faults. Rather, they were preemptive rotating power outages launched by California’s grid operator in order to avoid a much larger and potentially system-wide problem. On August 14th, the early evening blackout lasted as long as 150 minutes and affected 492,000 customers. The following evening’s event left 321,000 customers without power for as long as 90 minutes.

National Weather Service, Aug 2020

A perfect heat storm: That report blamed the event on a number of factors, including:

  • the hottest weather in 35 years, with temperatures in some areas well over 100 degrees F, resulting in increased customer demand.
  • a number of ‘forced outages,‘ rendering 1,400 to 2,000 megawatts (MW) of gas generation unable to operate in the extreme heat.
  • an inability to import enough desperately needed power from outside the state, owing to ’congestion’ on power lines;
  • inaccurate utility day-ahead demand forecasts, underestimating the supply that would be needed to meet soaring demand.

This may not be the last such outage: Perhaps most notably, the report stated: “In transitioning to a reliable, clean and affordable resource mix, resource planning targets have not kept pace to lead to sufficient resources that can be relied upon to meet demand in the early evening hours. This makes balancing demand and supply more challenging.” In other words, this is a systemic issue, and it may well happen again.

A critical factor is California’s growing reliance on solar energy, with its 11,000 MW of utilty-scale projects, and another estimated 18,000 MW of residential and commercial solar on over one million rooftops. To put those numbers in context, the California power grid’s total installed utility-scale capacity is 80,000 MW. So as the sun goes down in the late afternoon, the state loses a very large critical generation resource, and the remaining supply assets must rapidly pick up the slack.

To remedy these challenges, the report suggested that the State’s reliability and planning targets should account for these possible significant heat events in the future, and noted that the supply resource mix should be re-evaluated. It also emphasized the need to ensure that all planned new resource additions for 2021 must come online as projected, with the need to procure additional resources as well.

Implications for data centers: California is committed to transitioning from a heavy reliance on fossil generation resources to a carbon-free power grid by 2045, an enormous challenge and something that has never been attempted before. It will likely involve more challenges and headaches ahead, both for the power grid and its customers. Hot weather and fires are going to be an unavoidable future element of California’s electricity landscape, and a growing challenge in meeting the goal of electric supply reliability.

Those end users who rely on a critical and uninterrupted supply of electricity – such as data centers – may want to reconsider whether they need to remain within the state, and how much of their compute load may be flexible and could potentially be re-located to cleaner, less expensive, and more reliable power grids.

Iceland may represent a desirable alternative: Some power grids don’t face the challenge of transitioning from fossil fleets to carbon-free systems, because they started as renewable-based grids from the outset. Iceland is one such location, with its highly reliable and 100 % carbon-free grid, supported by geothermal and hydropower resources. The country has a history of hosting a rapidly growing datacenter industry, and a strong and reliable international fiber network and submarine cables connecting the country to the U.S. and Europe.

California datacenter operators looking for low-cost, clean and - above all - reliable electricity supply, might want to consider taking a look at what Iceland has to offer.


Written by Peter Kelly-Detwiler (Guest)

See Peter Kelly-Detwiler (Guest)'s blog

Peter is co-founder of NorthBridge Energy Partners and has more than 25 years experience in the international energy industry. You can follow Peter at: @PKayDee

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