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California Summer Blackouts? Bureaucratic Green Doublespeak)

By -- May 24, 2021

Ed.Note: The growing burden of renewable energy on the power grid is near or at maximum levels in some key states such as California and Texas. A product that was once ‘firm’ is now precarious with central planning by regional transmission organizations (RTOs) or Independent System Coordinators (ISOs). Expect a reliability index to be introduced for state-by-state analysis as the cancer grows and spreads.

“The declining effective load capability for grid-connected solar and hydro (for summer 2021) is primarily due to the shifting of peak loads to later in the day due to behind-the-meter solar generation, and declining hydro energy expectations, respectively” –  – California Independent System Operator (ISO), Summer Loads and Re-Assessment 2021

“Doublespeak – takes the form of euphemism or softening primarily to make the truth more palatable. ‘Max Weber, in his classic analysis of bureaucracy as a form of social organization, holds that a preoccupation with secrecy is an inherent characteristic of administrative institutions’”. – Frances E. Rourke, Secrecy in American Bureaucracy, Political Science Quarterly, Dec.,1957

A forecast recently issued by the California Independent System Operator – CAISO — says summer power supply “should be better in 2021” than the rolling blackouts of 2020, but supply challenges persist “during extreme heat waves”.  However, to understand the CAISO forecast one needs to first decipher the obtuse bureaucratic terms it uses to soften hard truths, mainly about green power.

The ISO attributes its “challenges” for the summer of 2021 to forecasted shortfalls of solar and hydropower imports from nearby states (i.e., green power). This is what also happened in the summer of 2020 when, to meet California’s dependence on 25 percent of its power from imports, CAISO could not procure enough backup power from other states and domestic power sources failed at peak demand hours.

Environmentalists blame the blackouts of the summer of 2020 on “evil fossil fuel” power plants while power providers and grid operators are reluctant to blame “green power”, as it is politically incorrect to do so. The truth is that Los Angeles avoided rolling blackouts during the summer of 2020 because it relied on imported natural gas and coal power from Arizona and Utah. Likewise, Arizona also avoided blackouts in 2020 from the same regional heatwave because it had sufficient natural gas and nuclear power.  But you won’t find this in CAISO’s report as to the “root cause” of the 2020 blackouts or its current forecast for the summer of 2021. 

The 2020 regional power shortfall was mainly due to a combination of inadequate dependable in-state natural gas power and the increasing solarization of other states power supplies that required their power providers to retain their power supplies to meet their own green power shortfalls. 

The California ISO uses its Energy Imbalancing Market (IEM) arrangement with nearby states to tap needed supplies during its daily ramp down of solar power during sunset hours and during extreme events of summer heat waves and winter cold snaps.  For clarification, CAISO’s Energy Imbalancing Market is a bureaucratic misnomer.  The IEM does not “imbalance” the power grid, but rather, “rebalances” any in-state shortfalls with imports. 

California has an energy crisis every day when solar power phases out in late afternoons and it must rely on mainly imported hydro and natural gas power to rescue California to meet peak demands that extend from about 4 pm to 8 pm mainly because of air conditioning use.  The ISO uses the obscurantist term “Duck Curve” to describe the daily phase out of solar power during sunset hours.

To be more accurate, the ISO summer forecast for 2021 says relatively lower availability of hydropower from Oregon and Washington, and reliance on residential rooftop solar are the power supply challenges facing California in the summer of 2021.  Here is the obfuscating technospeak that the ISO uses to describe the causes of the projected power shortfall for the summer of 2021:

“The declining effective load capability for grid-connected solar and hydro is primarily due to the shifting of peak loads to later in the day due to behind-the-meter solar generation, and declining hydro energy expectations, respectively” (page 6).

The ISO report referenced above uses the confusing term “behind-the-meter” to describe residential and commercial rooftop solar power.  “Behind-the-Meter” means onsite power generation (residential rooftop solar panels, home battery systems) and “In-Front-of-the-Meter” means offsite generation (far away power plants). Use of such technical terms deflects blame for blackouts away from residential customers with subsidized rooftop solar panels that nonetheless results in blackouts.

The projected summer 2021 shortfall may lead to rolling blackouts again this summer. However, the ISO has shifted from calling them “blackouts” to the more ambiguous term “load shedding”.

Such is the openly secretive nature of “independent system operators” of the power grid, which obscure they are an arm of government, not independent of government.  The governing board of CAISO is appointed by the governor, not by the energy industry and its CEO serves at the will and whim of the governor. 

Even with new capacity added for this summer, the ISO is only “cautiously optimistic” because to get through the summer months it must also depend on conservation by electricity customers (called “Flex Alerts”).  However, in the summer of 2020, electricity customers could not easily cut back on power usage because of unusually humid, hot weather that lasted all day and through the night for over a week without let up.

Nonetheless, in its Preliminary Root Cause Analysis of the Mid-August Heat Storm-2020, CAISO attributed the weather to the catch-all term “climate change”.  But climate change is a term that has itself replaced the term nebulous “global warming”. Now that temperatures have fallen in the last decade, climate change has morphed to mean any extreme weather event.

CAISO’s 2021 summer forecast estimates that a puny 1,571 megawatts (3.2% to 3.4%) of net new power will be added to meet the hot months of July, August and September out of an estimated peak demand of 45,907 to 48,457 megawatts. 

Quietly buried in the CAISO report is that 1,493 of this 1,571 megawatts of added new net power will come from “battery energy storage systems“ (BESS – page 6).  Batteries are a very time-limited energy source.  I could only find data in the CAISO forecast on static megawatts installed for batteries, not how many megawatt hours new battery power could generate. This does not adequately disclose if the added battery power is sufficient to carry through the longest period of shortage.

Also curiously omitted from the CAISO forecast: California’s Public Utility Commission is quietly re-commissioning So Cal Edison’s mothballed 1300 megawatt Redondo Beach natural gas peaker power plant for the summer of 2021, sparking opposition by environmental lobbyists

So, despite all the technospeak in the CAISO summer forecast, it could reasonably be said there is no way of really knowing what the risk of repeat blackouts is, as power plants can go offline suddenly for many unplanned reasons and nearby states can limit their power exports to cover their own daily solar powerdowns.  In essence, 2021 hasn’t changed much from 2020.

The tendency to hide secrets was once described by sociologist Max Weber as one of the defining characteristics of bureaucracies.  According to Weber, bureaucracies use secrets to insulate themselves from outside control.  But in the case of California, its bureaucracies are focused on maintaining government control of positive social perceptions about green power that is irresponsible and unaccountable as to what is behind structured seasonal blackouts.

One Comment for “California Summer Blackouts? Bureaucratic Green Doublespeak)”

  1. claire  

    Hi Wayne. I enjoyed this article. Just a small correction on the mothball power plant. Its been owned and operated by AES (www.aes.com) and it was recently sold to a private developer. As part of the sale the new owner “will allow” the plant to operate until 2023. Also AES is responsible for BESS operations located in Long Beach. Lots of doublespeak going on today. Great article.


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