Integrating California’s power grid with the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and California, as well as western Canada and Mexico would allow in-state wind and solar plants to operate at full capacity. CAROLYN COLE Los Angeles Times file
Integrating California’s power grid with the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and California, as well as western Canada and Mexico would allow in-state wind and solar plants to operate at full capacity. CAROLYN COLE Los Angeles Times file

Soapbox

Integrate western power grid to reduce emissions, energy costs

By James L. Sweeney

Special to The Bee

March 03, 2017 05:00 AM

California has built up an excess of electricity-generation capacity in the years following the crisis of 2000-01, the Los Angeles Times recently reported. Some have sought to justify this as insurance against more shortages and blackouts.

As the author of “The California Electricity Crisis,” I understand the need to prevent a repeat of service failures. But, as the Times article correctly describes, excess generation capacity is a costly and unneeded remedy.

A far more cost-effective solution would be to fix inefficiencies of our fragmented western electric grid. This also could put an end to California’s increasing need to throw away inexpensive emissions-free energy and to rely excessively on polluting fossil-fueled power plants.

By integrating our western power grid – including the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and California, as well as western Canada and Mexico – we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs for consumers, while increasing reliability. This integration would allow in-state wind and solar plants – that often lack timely access to customers elsewhere in the West – to operate at full capacity. In turn, clean electricity would become less expensive, allowing for more development of wind and solar power plants, rather than those relying on fossil fuels.

The full pricing transparency and operating efficiencies of an integrated grid would help safeguard against another crisis in an affordable, sustainable way. System operators would be able to dispatch electricity quickly and dependably to wherever it is needed throughout the West. Importantly, such an integrated grid would still allow every participating state – including California – to control its own electricity policies while cooperating with neighboring states and provinces and lowering utility bills within them.

Decades of bipartisan clean energy leadership in California has led to dramatic progress, including energy efficiency, wind power, geothermal power and solar energy. Elected officials of both parties have worked together to make it happen, as have nongovernmental organizations, private companies and individuals. But to make further progress while minimizing costs and ensuring reliable service in the presence of highly variable generation, we must integrate our western power grid.

One might ask what is wrong with the current system. High-voltage transmission lines connect the region, and electricity moves across state lines and national borders. California already has a highly professional California Independent System Operator to dispatch power within most of our state.

Unfortunately, California is part of a fragmented power system with 38 separate operators dispatching electricity across western states and parts of Canada and Mexico. The existence of so many separate operators leads to severe challenges in coordinating real-time operation and scheduling.

This fragmentation is the result of haphazard evolution over many decades, rather than rational choice. Western grid fragmentation raises costs, degrades reliability and increasingly impedes the spread of inexpensive renewable energy resources. In addition, fragmentation encourages California to build costly excess generation capacity to protect against times during which the sun does not shine, the wind does not blow and electricity use is peaking.

With a fully integrated western power system, cheaper emissions-free electricity could be efficiently dispatched from another state where the sun is shining, the wind is blowing or hydropower resources are available. Some progress has occurred: An “electricity imbalance market” has been established, which helps reduce the cost of handling shifts in participants’ short-term generation needs. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s a far cry from complete integration.

It is time for the California Legislature to approve our participation in an integrated western grid that will provide cleaner, more reliable electricity to Californians, while reducing use of costly fossil-fueled electricity generating plants.

James L. Sweeney is director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University. He can be contacted at jim.sweeney@stanford.edu.