Can Large-Scale Batteries Help Prevent California Blackouts?


In California, rolling blackouts have left millions of people in the dark as they rush indoors to escape both the COVID-19 pandemic and heatwaves. With so many people blasting air conditioners at once, California’s electric grid, which relies on renewables more than ever, is struggling to supply power.

There are two primary reasons for the outages. First, California draws energy supply from neighboring states that are currently experiencing similar issues. Second, it also draws heavily from natural-gas plants, which are struggling to provide power during times of peak demand. 

The blackouts serve as a warning for how increased dependency on renewables can pose challenges. New York, for example, has a goal to achieve carbon zero emissions by 2040, as well as a plan to reach 70% renewable energy by the next decade. However, renewable energy resources that are weather dependent—such as wind and solar— pose big challenges. If there is an outage during a time with not enough wind or sun, power can be difficult, if not impossible for renewables to generate, which is why energy storage methods are necessary to balance supply and demand.

Some experts say large-scale batteries may be able to support the grid during periods of heavy demand. Large-scale batteries, such as utility-scale battery storage, provide storage capacity that varies from several to hundreds of megawatt-hours. When coupled with renewable generators, these batteries deliver a greater power supply into the grid from renewables than can be obtained through excess power storage. They can also channel reliable and affordable electricity into isolated grids and provide power to communities that are off the grid.

However, the unreliability of green energy technology may mean that the grid will continue to incorporate gas-powered plants on some level, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, these experts believe large-scale batteries, as well as energy conservation programs, are necessary to help regions shift to renewables.

“It’s a call to accelerate the transition, because we know the direction that we’re headed,” Ben Serrurier, a manager in the electricity practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute, told the Wall Street Journal. “These climate-driven events are a call to reduce carbon emissions.”

Australian Town May Soon Be Home To One of the World’s Largest Smart Grids

Meanwhile, in New South Wales, Australia, the town of Broken Hill may soon house one of the largest smart grids in the world. Home to about 17,000 residents, Broken Hill plans to replace its diesel fuel-powered gas turbines with renewables to back up its power supply. During both planned and unplanned outages, the town currently draws supply from its gas turbines. Transgrid, the company that would oversee the project, is considering several options including batteries, demand response, and compressed air storage. It is also investigating grid-scale storage alternatives through renewables such as wind and solar farms.

“Most of the time, when the transmission line is in service, the grid-scale storage will be able to store excess renewable energy from south-western New South Wales that would otherwise be spilt, and provide it back to the market when it’s most needed,” Andrew Kingsmill, TransGrid’s Head of Network Planning, told PV Magazine. “When the line is unavailable, the grid-scale storage will work with the wind and solar generation at Broken Hill to reliably power the town. This is a prime example of the value of grid-scale storage in the future power system.”

As more regions across the world turn to green technology to curb climate change, innovations in renewables, such as solar panels with enhanced conversion rates, will be necessary to help meet energy supply demands.

Understand the Smart Grid

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Modernizing the Smart Grid, now available on the IEEE Learning Network, is designed to get you and your team up to speed quickly on the latest smart grid technologies.

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Blunt, Katherine. (17 August 2020). California Blackouts a Warning for States Ramping Up Green Power. The Wall Street Journal.

Maisch, Marija. (12 August 2020). Broken Bill to replace gas turbines with massive microgrid for back-up supply. PV Magazine.

(26 March 2020). Battery Storage Paves Way for a Renewable-powered Future. IRENA.

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