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Report explains why California power grid couldn’t take the heat in 2020

Hundreds of thousands of Californians sat in the dark last summer during the hottest August on record. The scorching heat lingered for days and taxed the state’s power grid, bringing some of the first rotating power outages in nearly two decades.

A report released Wednesday drives home the fact that climate change has impacted the very way California draws its energy. The extreme heat wave gripped the entire western United States and did not let go for weeks.

The crisis came to a tipping point in mid-August and the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) – the agency that monitors the state’s power grid – instituted two power outages starting Aug. 14. The outages left large swaths of the state without power for several hours at a time.

The report said there was no one cause for the power grid being overtaxed, but three factors came together to form a perfect storm that sparked the energy crisis.

Front and center was the climate change-induced extreme heat wave.

Looking back, 2020 saw the hottest August on record in California and by the middle of the month, the heatwave brought temperatures 10-20 degrees above normal to 32 million Californians. That was followed by the hottest September on record for the entire world.

While the Mojave Desert’s Death Valley reached 129 degrees in late August 2020, other parts of the state sweltered just the same. Even Woodland Hills in Los Angeles County reached 121 degrees by September.

The second factor is somewhat of a coincidence, because CAISO says “reliable, clean, and affordable” energy sources are to blame.

Those renewable energies have not kept pace to meet the demand for energy consumption in California – especially in the evening hours. The power generated by solar and wind power begins to teeter off in the late afternoon at a faster rate than the demand decreases, according to the report.

“This is because air conditioning and other load previously being served by solar comes back on the bulk electric system,” the report stated.

In essence, all those air conditioners powered by renewable energy sources are suddenly thrown onto the bulk electric system grid in the evening.

State agencies responsible for delivering and monitoring power to Californians, including CAISO, the California Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission, are familiar with the concept of renewable energy suddenly penetrating the grid.

The agencies have studied this peak usage scenario since 2016, but CAISO admits that there is still more work to be done to understand what to do when the system is under strain.

The third factor that contributed to the 2020 power outages in California is a bit of an inside baseball issue and has to do with the energy market. CAISO explained that market practices contributed to the blunder that shortchanged the state’s electrical grid.

This includes under-scheduling demand or underestimating the amount of power needed thanks to the financial energy trading used to price energy.

CAISO’s forecast was unable to notice that it was underestimating demand and when they figured it out, it was too late to respond.

Hence the blackouts that took place last summer.

The heatwave caught California’s energy grid off guard, but the report said the agencies are updating how they will deliver power to the state’s nearly 40 million residents.

“The acceleration of climate change demands we enhance our planning efforts and market practices at a faster pace and with broader anticipation for what is possible,” said CPUC President Marybel Batjer in a statement.

CAISO President and CEO Elliot Mainzer said the report released Wednesday provides “important insights and lessons” about all those factors that left so many in the dark. In a statement, he said all the state agencies will be working together to plan and secure more energy and modernize the state’s framework.