The latest energy crisis proves customers will be key to reaching our climate goals

The most impressive and historic aspect of California’s recent grid emergency came in the days that followed the rotating outages on August 14 and 15. For nearly a week in unrelenting heat, California customers came to the rescue when power to the grid was in short supply.

The Wall Street Journal and others are hypothesizing that last week’s crisis is evidence of unavoidable, future outages in a fossil fuel-free grid. But, what happened behind-the-scenes proves the opposite is true: We will meet the State’s climate goals and greenhouse gas emissions targets with a grid powered by energy providers and consumers working in partnership. A reliable, clean energy system is not only possible, it is within our grasp.

Customers saved the day, after day, after day

Customers delivered conservation and self-generation to prevent system problems from cascading. Southern California Edison (SCE) managed an unprecedented 70 demand response program dispatches across six consecutive days, where customers are enrolled in advance and are compensated for reducing usage when called upon.

In southern California, more than 250,000 residents and 10,500 businesses sacrificed their personal comfort and made adjustments for the greater good. We were astounded by their contributions, day after day, in the middle of a heat wave, collectively reducing the peak in SCE’s service area by more 1,200 megawatts (MW) during the emergency, at the time it mattered most.

In a wide variety of ways, customers heeded calls from many utilities and helped keep the lights on across the state. They turned up thermostats or switched off air-conditioning entirely, deferred using appliances, shut-down business operations early, discharged their own battery storage and ran their emergency generation.

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Caption: This graph shows the SCE demand forecasted the day prior (dotted line) compared to the actual demand recorded (solid line) on August 18, 2020 during the system supply shortage and heat wave. 

Energy companies and government acted together quickly

Utilities, renewable and battery storage providers, and Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs) aren’t always aligned in energy policy debates. However, during this emergency, we banded together to close the gap between supply and demand. Sunrun, a major solar and storage provider, managed equipment installed in customer homes and businesses, so batteries weren’t charging at peak times. Tesla, with more than 200,000 cars registered in California, sent a message to their car display screens recommending charging during off peak hours. CCAs, which are local energy suppliers who share millions of customers with utilities, echoed repeated pleas for conservation and operated their own demand response programs.

Lessons for our path to a low carbon future

Working together, we solved a state-wide emergency on a scale not experienced in nearly two decades. While we should celebrate this success, we can avoid repeating this emergency. In spite of what some experts watching the energy industry believe.

We shouldn’t need a crisis to build stronger partnerships, and we shouldn’t require customers to make sacrifices to solve the problem. Demand response programs made the difference between continued service and rotating outages. But with fewer than 10 percent of our residential customers participating, these programs are still only a fraction of the potential that technology gives us. Scaling demand response with technology already available today, like smart thermostats, will provide more grid flexibility and can be implemented without requiring significant discomfort for the individual customer.

On the supply side, SCE continues to advocate for and support building more large-scale, energy storage capacity. Market rules need to adjust so we can transition responsibly to a low carbon grid. SCE’s  vision suggests that California needs 30,000 MW of utility-scale energy storage to manage an additional 80,000 MW of utility-scale clean generation. Distributed energy will also grow significantly, with 50 percent of rooftops projected to have solar along with another 10,000 MW of customer-sited storage.

We can achieve our climate goals, while keeping the lights on for everyone. We just need to build on the successes delivered by our customers and partners, on those scorching hot, memorable days in August.