Incremental progress is the pathway to a decarbonized electric grid
When the lights went out last summer in California during two days of rolling blackouts, inadequate planning for a fully reliable transition towards clean energy was partly to blame. Now, a new report from the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) warns of the risk of more reliability challenges as solar and wind energy generation continues to expand.
The North American Reliability Corporation— the international regulatory authority that develops and enforces electric reliability standards across North America—points out the way electricity system operators keep the lights on is fundamentally changing due to an increasing number of power plants that are “unpredictable and less energy-assured.” Because solar and wind power plants rely on short-term weather conditions for fuel, they lack the inherent stability that comes from creating electricity from traditional fuels that are available on demand. So, for example, on hot summer days, when the power grid is stressed, this can become a serious problem as the sun sets and customer demand peaks in the evening hours. Without enough quick-starting power plants to replace electricity no longer being generated by solar plants, reliability is directly at risk.
NERC’s report points to the lack of sufficient flexible resources in the West needed to ensure reliability. The California electric grid operator and regulators agree. In a joint “root cause” analysis delivered to California Governor Newsom, the California Independent System Operator, the California Public Utility Commission, and California Energy Commission acknowledged that new challenges have materialized on the pathway towards a clean energy future. “In transitioning to a reliable, clean and affordable resource mix, resource planning targets have not kept pace to ensure sufficient resources that can be relied upon to meet demand,” they conclude.
David Cherney is a US energy policy expert at PA Consulting