By: Packetized Energy CEO and Co-founder, Paul Hines

Starting on Friday, August 14, this year, California had its first round of rolling blackouts since the California energy crisis of 2000-2001. While the full set of causes that led to the supply shortage are not yet clear, what is clear is that there was not enough power transmission and generation capacity to meet the surging demand for electricity needed to keep homes cool during the recent heat wave.

Transmission and generation capacity are expensive to build and require enormously lengthy and complex stakeholder engagement processes (no one wants a new transmission line or a smoke stack in their backyard). But without the capacity needed to meet electricity demand during peak hours, the grid can spin wildly out of control, resulting in massive blackouts that could leave many millions of people in the dark for days. As we’ve seen in California, grid operators are managing the situation by implementing rolling power outages as a last resort measure to avoid uncontrolled cascading blackouts. 

On top of this infrastructure challenge is the rapid and vital transition to wind and solar generation, which is great for the climate, but makes the problem of managing blackout risk more difficult. Now, grid operators need to look at not only the expected demand and the availability of conventional power plants, but also the variability of wind and solar resources from mother nature. To avoid blackouts we need better systems to manage capacity in power grids with lots of wind and solar.

In addition to the transition to wind and solar generation, there is the other ongoing transition toward electrification of everything, like transportation and space and water heating. Most analyses show that this transition is among the most cost effective ways to reduce overall carbon emissions. Consider the energy flow chart below from Department of Energy. The largest chunk of carbon emissions comes from petroleum combustion. And almost all of that goes to transportation. Electrifying transportation would make it possible to fuel our cars and trucks on wind and solar power from the electric grid, rather than oil.

But that’s only possible if we have the grid capacity needed to meet the surging demand for electricity during peak periods. Without it, we get either more blackouts or we stop electrification.  

So, to decarbonize energy, where do we get the power grid capacity needed to make this transition feasible, without rolling blackouts?

Option 1 is to build more fossil fuel power plants and transmission lines, but that’s expensive, takes forever, and doesn’t guarantee decarbonization.

Option 2 is to build a combination of large-scale energy storage systems in combination with wind and solar. This is promising, and we definitely need to do a lot of this, but large-scale battery systems remain expensive and often require the construction of new transmission capacity, which is expensive and involves many stakeholders.

But how about a third option: making existing homes, businesses and energy devices more flexible, in concert with the ongoing transition to electrification. Flexibility is the process by which we enable devices like water heaters, EVs and charging stations, heating and cooling systems, and even customer-owned battery systems to “flex” their power demand automatically with the availability of power from the grid. With the right technology (like what we’re doing at Packetized Energy), flexibility provides reliable and dispatchable power capacity to grid operators. When there is a shortage in the grid, instead of firing up expensive and polluting fossil fuel power plants to meet surging demand or implementing rolling blackouts that leave millions of people without power, operators can send signals to water heaters, EVs and cooling systems to reduce demand for a couple of hours. With the right technology, this can be done without customers even knowing that it’s happening. And by requiring this technology to automatically come embedded in all new electric loads, then we can keep the transition to clean energy going without the need for more rolling blackouts, expensive fossil generation, or complicated transmission capacity. 

In other words, it is possible to decarbonize the grid, electrify buildings and avoid rolling blackouts. We just need to make our energy appliances smarter.