Rolling blackouts in California have the power industry working overtime to avoid similar outages across the country. Faced with frustrated customers and political pressure from the state’s governor, regulators and utility providers are recognizing the need to make grid resiliency their top priority.
Caused by a complex “perfect storm of events,” the situation in the Golden State is a stark example of what can happen as the electricity grid evolves. Untapping and scaling solutions that create a more dynamic and flexible grid becomes critical because the problem goes beyond California.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to learn from these recent events and ways to apply these insights to future energy planning. Here are some lessons that can help mitigate existing challenges and ensure grid resiliency across North America.
Aggressive renewables targets require load flexibility
California is one of several states with aggressive clean energy targets, requiring 100% clean electricity by 2045. Currently, at least 14 states have renewable portfolio standards goals of 50% or greater.
However, these ambitious clean energy policies are missing a critical piece of the puzzle – the need to target accompanying levels of demand flexibility in order to maintain grid reliability. The intermittent nature and weather dependency of renewables make it harder for grid operators to forecast the net load. This means power shortages and blackouts can happen more frequently if grid operators can’t react quickly to changing production patterns.
As states and utilities move towards more aggressive renewable targets, reliability problems will continue without the right programs and incentives to manage demand. A high proportion of renewable power requires increased demand flexibility resources that can be easily and seamlessly dispatched – without compromising the customer experience.
Modernizing the grid and investing in demand flexibility technologies such as smart thermostats, smart electric vehicle chargers and connected water heaters becomes essential.
The importance of the residential customer
Until now, most market-based demand response programs have focused on commercial and industrial energy customers, leaving residential demand response program implementation to utilities. But COVID-19 has demonstrated that residential customers have a significant impact on the grid. With CAISO “scouring every corner of our world" for load reductions, residential programs were instrumental in preventing additional days of rolling blackouts and maintaining grid stability in California—and they’ll continue to demonstrate their value as a key resource in delivering load flexibility well beyond the pandemic.
Relying primarily on tactics like flex alerts to harness residential load reductions during grid emergencies is unpredictable, hard to measure and can compromise customer comfort. These factors make automation solutions essential, as they can be adjusted seamlessly while keeping the customer experience front and center.
Any forward-thinking grid planning needs to adapt, with policies and market mechanisms designed to maximize automated participation of residential demand flexibility resources at scale, particularly during grid emergencies.
Holistic, creative solutions are required
The situation in California creates urgency for policymakers to think outside the box and encourage new solutions that maximize flexible load resources. This will not only help avoid future blackouts, but also to prevent the rolling back of progressive climate goals.
In fact, there are many innovative demand flexibility resources available that are not being leveraged because policy barriers keep them hidden. One example is the eco+ platform on ecobee smart thermostats, a free upgrade to all ecobee devices that optimizes energy usage without any extra work for the customer.
The Community Energy Savings opt-in feature can make slight temperature adjustments to the thermostat when electricity demand in the community peaks. It also provides personalized pre-cooling capabilities to maximize customer comfort throughout a peak demand event. Those who have enabled the feature can provide automated demand flexibility, even if they don’t live in an area with a utility demand response program or haven’t signed up for one. Approximately 54% of ecobee’s eco+ customers in California fall into this category – a sizable number of people who are keen to help their communities in urgent situations.
A recent Community Energy Savings event dispatched in California demonstrates the impact of making these currently untapped resources visible. The event delivered an average per device impact of 0.76kW over the course of four hours. If similar solutions are scaled across a large customer base, the overall load reduction could play a major role in preventing the rolling blackouts entirely.
Per device kW impacts of Community Energy Savings in California
Scaled Impacts at Varying Levels of Smart Thermostat Penetration
As the industry works to prepare for the future through grid modernization, scaling residential demand flexibility resources and developing market constructs that facilitate and value automated response during emergencies cannot be overlooked.