California may avoid summer blackouts as Gov. Gavin Newsom praises improved electrical grid

The threat of power shutoffs on hot California days is likely to be kept at bay thanks in large part to thousands of new megawatts of battery storage being added to the electricity grid this year, according to the latest state energy data.

But long-term grid capacity challenges remain.

An increase in battery storage has allowed the state to collect excess power during times of low demand and discharge it on demand. Winter rains also boosted hydropower at dams this year, prompting officials to anticipate a power surplus this summer.

The projection will come as a relief to Californians who experienced threats of blackouts during last summer’s heat wave, which highlighted grid vulnerabilities as the state shifts to using more renewable power and prioritizes widespread electrification of cars, trucks and buildings.

It’s that interplay between short-term reliability and long-run clean energy goals that Gov. Gavin Newsom sought to address Thursday during a news conference at the Contra Costa County headquarters of Moxion Power Co., a manufacturer of clean, mobile energy storage technology.

In Richmond, Newsom announced the release of a state roadmap to achieve its clean energy goals — drastically increasing grid capacity and cutting out fossil fuels.

“We’re moving away from aspiration to application and implementation,” Newsom said.

Part of that strategy is a plan unveiled by the governor last week to expedite the clean energy infrastructure projects across California

“We need to build. We need to get things done. This is not an ideological exercise,” Newsom said Thursday. “We’re running against time.”

Solar panels in the parking lot of El Capitan High School in Merced in 2022. On Thursday, May 25, 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a detailed strategy to bolster renewable power in the state while preventing rolling blackouts during high-demand periods.
Solar panels in the parking lot of El Capitan High School in Merced in 2022. On Thursday, May 25, 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a detailed strategy to bolster renewable power in the state while preventing rolling blackouts during high-demand periods.

Battery storage capacity has increased rapidly in the last few years, according to new data from the state Energy Commission, growing to more than 5,000 megawatts this year from 250 megawatts in 2019.

The number of zero-carbon energy sources is also growing, data showed, though at a more modest pace. Officials said growth had been stymied by drought-related declines in hydroelectric power generation.

More than 37% of the state’s electricity in 2021 came from solar and wind, up 2.7% percent from 2020.

A California regulation called the Renewable Portfolio Standard requires 60% of all retail electricity sales to be from renewable energy by 2030, and for zero-carbon sources to supply 100% of sales by 2045. A law passed last year accelerated those timelines, setting a target of 90% clean electricity sales by 2030.

Siva Gunda, who serves on the commission, noted that California met its 2020 clean energy target in 2017 and highlighted the rapid growth in storage capacity, which grew nearly 20 times since 2019.

“Today’s fleet of storage resources can capture enough electricity to power up to 5 million California homes,” he said. “By mid-century, capacity is projected to increase another tenfold to 52,000 megawatts.”

Storage expands, but California’s electricity grid remains vulnerable

Officials stressed that the grid remains vulnerable to periods of extremely high demand and availability of imports when neighboring states are also stressed. The grid has ample solar power when the sun is shining or wind is blowing, but has historically had to lean on gas-fired power plants during evening periods of high demand.

At the same time, California is gearing up to significantly expand grid capacity to handle accelerated demand from electric vehicles and buildings with the decline of fossil fuel-powered cars and appliances. Grid capacity overall must triple by 2045, according to estimates from the Independent System Operator, which controls California’s grid.

That expansion would pose a challenge for the state, experts said. New energy production facilities such as solar and wind projects take years to acquire needed permits and studies, as do long-distance power lines needed to connect cities.

“This is the largest requirement for new clean energy resources in the state’s history,” said Alice Reynolds, president of the California Public Utilities Commission. “This will result in unprecedented investments in energy storage and help us move that abundant solar energy from the middle of the day to evening hours when we need it most.”

All that new development will cost money likely to fall on ratepayers already burdened with some of the nation’s highest energy costs. Spikes in fuel prices this winter and the cost of air conditioning last summer took a toll on low-income households.

Reynolds pointed to a program for customers of SMUD, PG&E and Southern California Edison to save money by reducing their power use during peak demand hours from 4-9 p.m. Pre-cooling with air conditioning early in the day, she said, is a more efficient way to cool your home this summer.