While the bootleg fire in Oregon continues to burn, the effects of the largest forest fire in the United States in 2021 are felt well beyond the country's borders. Not only did the bootleg fire and other active fires cover the skies with smoke as far as New York City, but the fire also disrupted electricity supplies to nearby California, which depend on energy imports to keep the lights on.
The California network operator issued a “flex alarm” on July 12 after the bootleg fire disconnected electrical transmission lines that normally deliver power from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California. As California's power supply was reduced by up to 3,500 megawatts due to the fire, the California Independent System Operator (ISO) asked customers to reduce their energy consumption during a hot spell in order to relieve the weak network.
The Flex-Alarm seems to have served its purpose, as the electricity demand remained below the previous day's forecast for the duration of the evening peak demand (see graphic below). Such voluntary cuts will continue to be an important part of California's toolkit to respond to extreme weather events or delivery bottlenecks.
But the state can do much more to permanently improve its energy resilience in the face of increasing climate threats in the West. This includes both the use of distributed energy resources within national borders and the improvement of the transmission infrastructure across national borders.
California can do much more to permanently improve its energy resilience in the face of mounting climate threats in the west.
Resistance from the roofs
Decentralized energy resources (DERs), such as solar and battery storage on the roof, offer the individual customers, the grid and the climate several advantages:
- DERs take the load off the grid by providing on-site generation to completely reduce demand or by off-peak demand.
- By reducing electricity demand or shifting demand to times when renewable energies are available on the grid, DERs reduce the grid's dependence on fossil fuel generation and help eliminate climate pollution from burning fossil fuels.
- In the event of outages caused by fire, wind, extreme weather events, or public safety power cuts, DERs provide local resilience, keep lights on, power community services and operate life-saving medical equipment when mains power is not available.
Similarly, less technical efficiency improvements such as improving insulation and windows can both lower electricity needs and increase household resilience. Well-insulated, weather-protected houses offer more “hours of security” during a failure by keeping living spaces cozy without electrical cooling or heating.
DERs can be particularly valuable for hospitals, emergency centers, shelters, and other critical facilities. As public safety power cuts become part of the “new normal” life in California, some organizations are investigating how schools can use solar panels, battery storage, and “island” microgrids to create resilient schools that can stay open if the grid fails.
On a large scale, hundreds of thousands of solar-plus-battery systems that are used in households and companies can serve as “virtual power plants” that feed energy back into the grid when required. “It takes the Flex Alert and it makes it faster,” Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, told the Los Angeles Times in 2020 78. ‘ It says, ‘Do these things and give us 5 kilowatt hours from your battery in your garage. And we'll pay you for it. ‘”
To expedite more resilient upgrades, cities can ensure that the process of deploying solar and battery systems has as few barriers as possible. The new SolarAPP + program, developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory with RMI and other partners, aims to streamline the approval process for solar and battery storage in residential buildings. The California cities of Menifee and Pleasant Hill were among the first communities to try SolarAPP +, and cities like Stockton are planning to implement SolarAPP + to meet community clean energy, climate and resilience goals.
Put eggs in additional baskets
During the past half century, the Pacific Northwest-Southwest Link has transported low-cost hydropower generated by the dams in the Pacific Northwest to the Los Angeles area. As the Bootleg Fire showed, California is heavily dependent on this and other north-south transmission routes that are increasingly exposed to climate risks. As the graph below shows, the loss of 3,500 MW of electrical power means a significant dent in the state's energy imports, which account for a quarter of California's total electricity supply.
Market integration in the west through the energy imbalance market has already helped enable electricity trading and bring economic benefits to states across the region. A further integration of the markets while at the same time expanding the interstate transmission infrastructure would improve these economic advantages and at the same time reduce the dependency on certain regions or generating plants and distribute the resilience advantages between the states. Just as the Pacific Northwest-Southwest Link has allowed Northwest Dams to sell hydropower to population centers in Southern California, an expanded pipeline would allow California to export solar energy in large quantities when renewable energy is in abundance, but that Demand in the states is low. It would also give California more opportunities to get power from windier states across the west when demand exceeds supply.
Modernizing and expanding the national transmission grid will also be the key to decarbonizing the grid by enabling the deployment and use of wind and solar energy on a large scale. This is one of the reasons RMI recently identified transmission investments as a top clean energy priority for federal infrastructure laws being drafted and discussed in Washington DC
Resilience at all levels
As explained in a recent RMI blog post, clean energy is not a zero-sum game: we need both small DERs and large-scale transmissions to unlock the resilience and climate benefits of clean energy. With climate-induced heatwaves and forest fires already reshaping the West, California and other states must act simultaneously to curb climate change while adapting to the effects they already have. Fortunately, the best clean energy solutions that we have in our toolkit can solve both problems at the same time, making the grid greener while building resilience.