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We should not be operating our power grid via text alert, and other observations from the past few days

Uploaded: Sep 9, 2022

Well, that was an interesting few days. Our electric service should work quietly in the background. Instead it made headlines nearly every day. At times it appeared that we were managing our power grid via text alert. That is no way to run essential infrastructure. I’m pretty sure we can all agree on that.

And let’s not forget that we had record-setting heat for much of the week, triple digits across a state that is not accustomed to it or built for it. Since, as the saying goes, this is one of the coolest years of the next few decades, we’ll see more of these. Severe heat waves have significant implications for our health, for the environment, for productivity and the economy, for inequality. We delayed climate action for fifty years, and here we are.

So, what do we take away? Below are some of my thoughts. As always, I look forward to hearing yours in the comments.

In the next few years, grid-connected appliances must supplant alerts.

Text alerts are no way to manage a power grid. Among other things, they lose effectiveness when they are issued too frequently (ahem). CAISO CEO Elliot Mainzer agrees, writing that “I too look forward to the days when Flex Alerts are a thing of the past!”

We need tools deployed sooner rather than later that will help us use more power at the right times with no effort on our part. And if we can make money while using them, so much the better. Smart charging for air conditioners, pool pumps, heaters, and EV chargers will save us money and reduce emissions by invisibly shifting our power to when it’s cheaper, cleaner, and more plentiful. If the peak slowly shifts from summer afternoons to winter mornings as we add more electric heat, we shouldn’t have to know or care.

These tools are being developed, tested, and rolled out all over the state, including by our largest utilities. This won’t happen without some bumps, but it’s important.

In the meantime, maybe we should ditch the alerts anyway.

While frequent alerts may be ineffective at reducing demand, they are particularly good at one thing, namely building distrust in what should be a foundational utility. As someone succinctly put it, “Geez, CAISO, quit asking us to do your job for you!” (1)

Maybe people would be happier, or at least less annoyed, if CAISO quit the pleading and the power just quietly went out with a brief heads-up a few hours beforehand: “The power may go out for an hour or two between 6-9 pm tonight during this record-breaking heat”. Stop asking people to conserve. Many don’t like it, some resent it, and it puts much of the state on edge. Instead, rip off the band-aid. Just a thought.

Power discharged from EV batteries will be a big help.

Today California residents have around 450,000 EVs with a 200-mile range. Most of these EV owners can spare 20 kWh (maybe one-third of their battery) over a 3-hour period on the occasional triple-digit day, and would happily do so when paid for it. That would add up to 3 GW of power for three hours, nearly all of what we need during these events. Even if we only got 1 GW, that would cover much of the shortfall on these super hot summer evenings. This power source will only get bigger as the EV population grows rapidly.

EVs are building in this capability -- some already have it -- but we need to figure out how to quickly and cheaply deploy the solar-like grid infrastructure needed to enable two-way charging much more pervasively while ensuring our grid stays safe and secure.

Minor inconveniences are just that -- minor.

Some people live to kvetch, especially online. But we should be pulling together to deal with small things like a brief power outage, rather than magnifying them and fretting about all the things that might go wrong. In the rare event that someone does have an emergency need to charge an EV just as the power goes out, offer them a ride! The big deal here in my opinion was the heat wave, not the prospect of a brief announced outage.

An effort can be both spectacular and flawed.

I wrote earlier that CAISO’s efforts (and results) this past few days were “spectacular”. They were also clearly flawed. Attempts at particularly difficult or novel things often hit both marks. CAISO had experience and ample preparation, but this heat wave was still very difficult to handle. They forecast and quantified the challenge well and managed to keep the grid largely up with few hitches during a time of great strain. The effort and outcome in my view were spectacular. While there are areas for improvement, and we should call that out, we should appreciate the progress and show some forbearance given the scope of this challenge.

Mitigating and adapting to global warming is not going to be a picnic.

People like to throw around the word “entitled” a lot, particularly with reference to the younger generation. But where I see it when it comes to climate change is in the older generation. We have got to change the way we do things. We have got to stop burning fossil fuels. We have got to move away from gas and towards cleaner fuels. And we have to do it sooner rather than later.

Yes, that may mean things are a little messy sometimes. We look ridiculous operating our grid via text alert. But, you know what, it worked. It may not work over and over, but we’ll keep learning and we’ll keep improving. And in the meantime, California is reducing its emissions faster and more transformatively than most other states and even countries. That is what innovation looks like. I am extremely grateful to live in a state that is making such an effort and doing it in a disciplined fashion.

It’s not that people don’t like change.

Finally, I don’t think the pushback is coming because people don’t like change. People clearly like change. We follow the latest fashions, travel to new places, check out new restaurants first thing. Sometimes I think people are heat-seeking missiles for novelty. I find this sniping that “Well, they just don’t like change” to be dismissive at best and plainly incorrect. I think instead what (most) people don’t like is change that leaves them feeling out of control. Even though CAISO has a structured and carefully considered program for dealing with grid strain, calling everything an Emergency and issuing appeals to residents leaves customers feeling like they and their grid are not in control.

We need to do a better job of laying out where the grid is headed and where we are on that path. When people don’t understand that, an event like this can leave them feeling anxious because the state seems to be winging it.

Now that you have a chance to reflect, I’d be interested to hear what’s going through your mind after this past week.

Notes and References
1. By the way, it’s not just California that does this. Texas does this too. And I get it, it saves a lot of money while avoiding outages. But it can also erode trust.

Current Climate Data (July 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

Interesting fact: EV batteries are in many cases outlasting the cars themselves. As a result, there has been a steady stream of slightly depleted EV batteries going to solar farms, and battery recycling firms are being starved of material.

Source: Twitter

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Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 9, 2022 at 8:08 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Lots of good thoughts here.

However, I strongly dispute the idea that a few hours' outage as being a minor inconvenience. For businesses, it may not be minor as things have to be cancelled that are important or expensive. Food gets spoiled particularly anything that is in the process of being /prepared when the power goes out.

As for homes, well many are still working from home at least part of the time and an inability to attend zoom meetings or download crucial work.

Having food partially cooking in an oven when the power goes out means that cakes, cookies, pies, breads, etc. have to be thrown out. Virtual doctors appointments, interviews, college work, school work, examinations, etc. will make serious impacts. How do you tell a child that a much looked forward to bounce castle at a birthday party, or party at the ice rink, won't happen because there is no power. The inability to fully charge an EV overnight (particularly if the outage occurs in the early hours) can mean that the car will not have enough charge for the following day's activities. Security systems not working could mean an increase in crime. Garage door openers not working could be serious for those without the strength for manual controls.

A power outage just doesn't mean that people live in the dark without lights. When the power goes out, it is a major inconvenience to modern life.

Posted by [email protected], a resident of Portola Valley,
on Sep 9, 2022 at 12:31 pm

[email protected] is a registered user.

The near misses to overtaxing the power distribution network should be taken as a strong warning as to how unprepared our electric power system is to provide the foundation for an electrified lifestyle. Every part of the system from generation, transmission grid, localized distribution network down to and including practically every wire and transformer on power poles and or underground will need to be resized to meet the increases in load.
While politicians in search of more votes wax endlessly about forcing end users to retrofit private uses of energy from ancient fuels to supposedly renewable sources little or no real effort is going into configuring an electrical system that would do well in the environment of the past few days. Clearly just a week with little wind, the sun still going down at night and just a week of high heat brought us to the tipping point. It's possible that such planning is going on but there is little of evidence of such planning and even less pragmatic communication on how this is all going to be financed.
Too many so called leaders are following the easy path and complaining that individuals aren't making the shift fast enough. But lets be real. Where are the forecasts of how all the needed changes in the electrical network are going to be implemented. If we're all supposed to have electrical water heaters, electrical space heating, electrical cooking, and electrical vehicles - many of which are going to to get turned on at the same time - now said to be 4PM to 10 PM - What are we supposed to do. Maybe our self anointed leaders are envisioning a reservation system where each family in an area can sign up for so many KW of load at any time - but like going out to dinner, if all of the available resource is booked before you try you might need to schedule your shower at 3:30 Am and breakfast at 10AM .
Let's get to work on reality!

Posted by Eddie, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Sep 10, 2022 at 7:27 pm

Eddie is a registered user.

Sherry, regarding your comment that people don't like change...
Sure, people love change when it involves trying out a new restaurant every week or new clothes every season.
But I don't think they like change when it involves "personal infrastructure" e.g. - having to buy a new type of car (and installing a charger (which might mean electrical work)), having to install a new kind of water heater, stove top, change landscaping, home eating habits...
Kudos to you (and to lots of other people who comment on this blog) for making many green changes in recent years - but for many others there will be lots of resistance (new restaurants and clothes are a lot more fun).

Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Sep 11, 2022 at 7:54 am

Paly Grad is a registered user.

Another power outage Sunday morning. Power was out for about 2 hours in my neighborhood.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 11, 2022 at 11:48 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Fourth outage in 7 days!

Posted by Former PA resident, a resident of another community,
on Sep 12, 2022 at 10:16 am

Former PA resident is a registered user.

Sherry, I normally find your posts to be very reasonable and highly informative. But this time I'm honestly shocked at how cavalierly you're speaking about the impacts of power outages. To a person living with a ventilator (and who can't afford their own backup power supply), a power outage is not a "minor inconvenience." Or, to use a more general example, several hundred people died last summer in the Pacific Northwest due to the effects of heat during the major heat dome event that year; how many more would have died if there had been a large-scale power outage at that time too? Or perhaps you should ask anyone who lived in Texas in February 2021 how they feel about their state "ripping off the band-aid" and accepting a power outage. (And, not for nothing, having a grid with more frequent power outages would do a lot to discourage people from electrifying their homes and keeping them dependent on fossil fuels.)

I completely agree with you that it would be ideal to have widespread adoption of grid-responsive devices, such that the grid operator could shift load around in order to avoid outages. (Side benefit: this would help the whole system run more efficiently, massively reducing the cost of our electricity infrastructure, saving society billions of dollars, and reducing GHG emissions.) But we don't live in that world yet. So we're left with just a few options: (1) rip off the band-aid and live with more frequent power outages, (2) invest many billions of dollars in building out our energy infrastructure to withstand absolutely any kind of extreme weather event, or (3) occasionally asking customers to help conserve energy during extreme situations. I know which option I'd choose.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 12, 2022 at 1:26 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Monday lunchtime and still nothing from the utilities or PAW. The silence is deafening.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a DanvilleSanRamon.com blogger,
on Sep 12, 2022 at 2:44 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Hey all. Thanks for the comments!

Re the Palo Alto outage, I think you’ve seen the post here by now. I do hope the utility starts producing end-of-year summaries (or more often), along with analysis and goals, etc. Reliability deserves some quality transparency and planning.

@Eddie, FWIW re change, I was talking more about the power mix and how we operate the grid, not about home appliances. But you’re right, the pushback may be related. Re home appliances, I think telling people to replace them asap is a non-starter, but strongly encouraging and then requiring electric replacements? I hope that is more viable, especially as we make it easier and lower cost.

@Bystander and @Former, yes, I’m saying a rare pre-announced one-hour or two-hour outage should not be a big deal. To be clear, I am not saying that heat waves are not a big deal. And I am not saying that long outages (like those Public Safety Power Shutoffs for fire danger) are not a big deal. Both are very big deals. But saying “We have a record-breaking heat wave coming up for three days at the end of this week. You may experience a power outage lasting one or two hours at some point between 4-9pm on those three days.”? I don’t think that is untenable, and it may be better than the gazillion alerts and pleas to conserve. For example, people would charge things, have a router plugged into a UPS, and postpone or have candles out for their evening party. I fully understand that people have medical equipment, but they already need backups for that. So I don’t think I’m being cavalier, but ymmv. How do you weigh the benefits of the pleas to conserve (huge cost savings, possible avoidance of 1-2 hour outage) with the costs of the pleas (distrust/annoyance with utility, inconvenience of 5 hours’ of energy savings)? FWIW, I think the cost savings come at a cost (so to speak!). (I actually suspect it’s the cost savings, not the inconvenience of a brief outage, that keeps the utilities so alert-heavy during these times. The costs go through the roof.)

@Stan: OMG, a reservation system for cooking, I can just imagine. FWIW, there is a boatload of planning. The state and utilities aren’t interested in offering up outages and mandatory cooking reservations. You can argue that the planning is not good enough, but imo you definitely can’t argue that it’s not happening. Several agencies spend a lot of time on forecasting demand, planning for transmission, ordering up generation, determining price models, etc. I wrote about some of it here, and specifically for heat waves I linked to some of it above here. Also, keep in mind this wasn’t just “a week of high heat”, it was record-shattering. Here is some eye-opening data for Pasadena, CA. (Note that the y-axis goes from 86 to 92, so the point is that the delta is much greater than it has been.)

Source: Twitter

True, we can’t plug everything in at 6pm. And as we introduce winter heat, it is going to get even more complicated what we should run when. Having grid-wise appliances will be important. There are even grid-wise electrical panels that can help homes operate with a reduced load if the distribution network were capable. I am not saying this is easy. It is anything but. However, I also think it is doable. IMO California is 100% right to move ahead with this, and they are working with utilities, innovators, academics, large businesses, disadvantaged communities, etc, to make this happen. There will be bumps, but there will also be (and has been) incredible progress.

Thanks again for the thoughtful comments. With the heat, the grid alerts, the fires, and more, it is great that you are reading and thinking about this.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 12, 2022 at 8:17 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Finally, I don't think the pushback is coming because people don't like change"

Maybe the pushback reflects lack of faith the city's ability ti provide reliable, cost-effective service, including sending out timely outage reports more frequently than days after people are left in the dark.

Just a thought after this week. And after they screwed up the solar permitting and set up which they didn't even know about until the media did an expose.

Track records matter. So, one hopes, does common sense.

How they can think they're capable of managing a costly Fiber network when they can't do the above is worth asking. I've asked how they'll provide tomely customer service and one CC member told me, "Oh, we'll outsource. Don't worry about our lack of expertise."

Pardon me. Why are we spending money to outsource what we're already getting from experienced, established services??? We had a problem with Sonic today. Got a real live person who solved the problem.

Pay to improve the grid rather than something few want. City surveys show maybe 30% might be interested in city Fiber some time in the future but ALL of us want and expect reliable power now.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a DanvilleSanRamon.com blogger,
on Sep 12, 2022 at 9:19 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Online, after this year (not just week) of power unreliability, I'm not at all sure that the city *could* sell fiber to residents. It's one thing for the power to go out -- most of us have batteries. But internet? I only know a few who have backup service providers, and cellular doesn't cut it. So who would buy it?

Our city has the most expensive water in the entire state. I think we should be putting effort into improving the reliability of our power and the affordability of our water, and the sustainability of both (24x7 emission-free and REC-free power and recycled/purple water for irrigation), before taking on entirely new essential business (and outsourcing much of it). I mean, I really think that.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 13, 2022 at 11:10 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Sherry, exactly.

By the way, today's dramatic market decline is attributed to inflation the bulk of that increase attributed to the record-increase in electricity rates -- an increase expected to continue as more people are forced to convert.

Posted by Reid, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 13, 2022 at 11:11 am

Reid is a registered user.

Thanks for writing this, Sherry! I had these same thoughts, and you've said it better than I could. These constant flex alerts and mobile notifications create the impression that the grid is unreliable, and discourage people from electrification. It drives demand for home natural gas powered generators. It's far better for everyone if we invest in shared energy resources than distributed dirty energy.

Posted by C. R. Mudgeon, a resident of Danville,
on Sep 13, 2022 at 11:20 am

C. R. Mudgeon is a registered user.

One of Newsom's good decisions (for a change) has been to back the delaying of the shut-down of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. I think he has stated that it provides something like 9% of the state's “baseline capacity“ (his words), and that without it, we would have had massive outages last week. I would also argue that elimination of natural gas for both heating, and electricity generation should be done slowly. Natural gas is less carbon-intensive than other fossil fuels, producing H2O as well as CO2. And it also helps fill the void in generation at night, and on windless days. Massive battery storage on the grid has its own environmental impacts. Not to mention the fact that China has, or controls most of the world's lithium reserves (batteries), as well as rare-earth metals used in motor and generator magnets (e.g. cobalt, neodymium, etc.). In the long, long run, cold-fusion power may be the answer to cheap, abundant, on-demand power. As a side note, throughout history, civilization advances have been brought about by increased energy availability, and lower energy costs, as opposed to scarcer, more expensive energy....

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 13, 2022 at 11:45 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I would actually prefer to hear about an upcoming outage in advance rather than just get a surprise that it might be our turn.

With some preparedness, we are unlikely to start preparing dinner in the oven which may end up partially cooked and go out to dinner if we can ascertain exactly which areas have power and won't lose it.

When power does go out, a text message alerting us not to go home but to get dinner elsewhere would be useful. I know we can't get squirrels to alert us to when they may interrupt our supply, but a more accurate alert telling us that we have lost power in our area and it will take x hours to restore can at least give us some idea of what to do next.

The real problem of an outage is the inconvenience. Being able to reduce the inconvenience with accurate information is helpful. We are high tech community and we should be using high tech communication to give us accurate information and time windows. We do have an inefficient and unreliable utilities department and it is only when we discuss how much better they could be that anything will improve. Imagine trying to run a business which depends on electricity and not know if food will spoil, customers can be charged, or services can be provided to customers getting their hair dried or teeth scraped. From small restaurants and cafes, to health and service providers, we are at the mercy of our utilities.

Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Sep 13, 2022 at 4:42 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Even with several hours' notice, that's not enough time for people who are dependent on electricity for medical devices to be relocated. There needs to be a huge clarification delivered to every consumer of power, as to how to get an exemption at a certain address. Of course that's not possible, when they are just throwing a switch into the "off" position. Many people have learned the meaning of "aging in place" and many of those places are lacking in device knowledge or affordable devices. It can be a life or death decision to cut off power. We're all "conserving", especially with higher rates (exception being those with enough money not to care) and most of us are highly aware of the cost in terms of the planet in making more demands than mother nature has to offer. We are at the tipping point, and those of us not looking at mortality rates due to climate crisis, should be. That is where the tipping point leads.

Posted by Westbrook, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 14, 2022 at 5:30 pm

Westbrook is a registered user.

Newsome is mandating all new vehicles be EVs by 2035. Before you stand up and cheer understand that in order to do that you will have to phase out new gas-powered cars over several years. It's not a matter of saying on Jan. 1st 2035 no more gas cars. You will have already had to install progressively a lot of new charging stations throughout the state. They would need to be installed years ahead. Along with the grid infrastructure to power these charging stations. Estimates are we will need 50% more power generated to satisfy the new charging stations. All in 13 years. I bring your attention to the HSR which started in 2008, Now 14 years later not a single mile of track has been laid. By this standard, the charging stations won't be completed until 2065 if at all. No one can really say. If our grid can't handle a heat wave now how will it handle new electric homes, businesses and EVs in 13 years? So for everyone clapping about new EVs please indulge us and explain where this power will come from and who will be installing the stations and station infrastructure for them. You see you don't just plop a charging unit in the ground on I5 plug it in and it works, There is a lot of infrastructure required to get the power from transmission lines to the high-demand charging stations. I realize it may feel good now but,
Don't you think it should be incumbent upon the state and the CAISO to come up with a plan before mandates?

FYI, roughly 2M new cars are sold in Ca. every year.

Posted by Old Steve, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Sep 15, 2022 at 9:13 am

Old Steve is a registered user.


I take your point about EV infrastructure, but let me clarify a couple of facts:

HSR was approved by the voters of CA in Nov 2008. I'm not sure that qualifies as "starting". HSR track will get installed in long stretches as the infrastructure under the rails gets completed. HSR is pretty good at keeping their website current as to construction progress. And remember please that 2 electric trainsets compatible with HSR are already stored in San Jose, and involved in testing for the Caltrain Electrification project (partially funded by HSR).

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a DanvilleSanRamon.com blogger,
on Sep 15, 2022 at 4:22 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Westbrook: You are absolutely right that it will be challenging to roll out all of the charging infrastructure needed. You are also right that it’s not just a matter of saying hey, come January 1 2035, 100% of light-duty vehicles sold are zero-emission or plug-in. To that end, CARB recently approved a regulation requiring the following sales curve:

That is going to require a continuous push on grid and charging infrastructure. I have shared information before on planning for the electrical grid and how that is done. You can also find some planning specific to EV infrastructure here.

People at the CEC and CARB and elsewhere have been analyzing this for years. They know that since California is a leader, our progress will be scrutinized. And in fact they cannot announce regulations without in-depth analysis and some confidence that we can hit the target. Plans are not outcomes. Aggressive goals are never a sure thing. But the track record of these large agencies is pretty good when it comes to hitting energy goals. I’ll try to read these reports and keep you up-to-date on how we are doing. These are important questions.

Posted by Westbrook, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Sep 21, 2022 at 10:34 pm

Westbrook is a registered user.

Hi Sherry, Thanks for the additional information but do you know Who exactly will be building and installing these 170,000 new charging stations up and down the state? Many will have to be built in out of the way places on highways 5, 101 and 99.The Ca. Energy Commission? Will it be private industry, Government agencies, a hybrid? As you said there are very few if any details for this grand scheme.
There is no plan without the details.

One thing we do know is the mandate calls for 35% of new cars to be electric by 2026, That's in 3 years, and 700,000 new EVS. who will build 700,000 new EVs within 3 years? Where will the charging stations be located, built, and serviced along with an upgraded grid to power them for all those new cars? The infrastructure alone will be daunting, involving right of ways, eminent domain for new power lines, permitting, environmental reviews, challenges and approvals, plus Lawsuits. Then how long will people have to wait in line for a charge? Some areas already have lines.

I again refer you to the HSR government-sanctioned disaster. To be built in 12 years, for a cost of $40B, now 14 years later, almost 0 infrastructure built, with 0 tracks laid. Current estimates are $105B "but we all know that number will go up" and probably another 20 years to complete it, if at all.

Does anyone really think our State government can build, install and power 170,000 new charging stations? With 53,000 of those in just the next 3 years.

If you do not learn from history you are doomed to repeat it.

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