Aliso Canyon and the Blackout Threat — California Utilities Fast-Track Battery Storage Projects

The result of a massive gas leak in Aliso Canyon threw California utilities into a panic, facing the possibility of weeks of rolling blackouts in the Los Angeles area. Now, SoCal Edison and SDG&E are working to push forward battery-powered energy storage projects to help manage the situation. We’re not talking about a few batteries here and there. We’re talking about setting a new speed record for battery storage installations. In other words, the energy storage revolution is about to get a jump-start from California utility companies.

What Happened in Aliso Canyon?

Natural gas pipelines pump in gas over long distances, and are not big enough to meet demand around the country all the time. This is where storage facilities come in. With adequate space for natural gas storage, utilities can inject gas into these locations during the spring and summer when demand is lower, so it’s available for fuel and heat during the colder months. This stored gas is essential to meet wintertime demands. In fact, the utility companies have to periodically report their numbers to show that there is enough natural gas stored to keep furnaces and hot water heaters up and running all winter.

This system works…mostly — until a major natural gas storage facility starts breaking down.

That’s exactly what happened recently in Aliso Canyon, Calif. A leak was detected in Aliso Canyon’s natural gas storage facility, forcing it to be shut down. Because the facility is currently closed, all of the gas that has been stored in this location in anticipation for the winter may no longer be available when the time comes for temperatures to fall. This drop in guaranteed stored gas is a nightmare for power companies.

Remember, the utility companies have to show that they have stored enough gas to meet demand in the coming winter. Since they don’t know for sure that the Aliso Canyon storage facility will be open in the winter, they can’t count the quantity of gas they already have stored in their reported numbers. This means other storage facilities will need to really amp up their natural gas storage so they can reach the quota they need for the coming winter. The direct effect of this increase of stored natural gas for the winter is a shortage of gas to fire gas powered electrical plants this summer. Not enough gas for power plants this summer means there is not enough capacity to meet electricity demand. This is when things get serious.

This Is Where the Blackouts Come In

When power plants face low capacity in cases like this, they have a few different options. First, people hit the streets, asking both businesses and residential customers to cut their electricity usage in any way that they can. This can help, but in this case, it won’t be enough. Secondly, most companies strike a deal with a number of industrial customers in which they charge lower fees in exchange for the ability to interrupt their power service if they encounter an electricity crisis. This will definitely help, but it still won’t be enough. After trying these two options, electric utilities are in a tight spot. It comes down to power outages.

So, in a nutshell: Because the Aliso Canyon plant sprung a leak, natural gas storage plants in the Los Angeles area need to stock up on natural gas for the winter, and won’t leave enough to adequately fire all of the electric utility plants this summer. If and when demand exceeds supply, power plants will cut power, neighborhood by neighborhood, to prevent the entire plant from shutting down. And that’s why we’re facing the possibility of blackouts in Southern California.

Batteries Instead of Blackouts

Southern California utilities recently took another look at the blackout option and proposed an alternative solution: Batteries. The utility companies are turning to energy storage to help with the Aliso Canyon crisis… and they’re doing it at record speed. The California Public Utilities Commission has a request on the table from SoCal Edison and SDG&E to approve more than 50 MW of battery projects, ranging from 2 MW to 20 MW. The deadline for getting them up and running? The last day of this year. That’s really, really fast, especially when you’re talking about energy storage installations.

If the Dec. 31 deadline is met, California will have the energy storage resources to cope with the natural gas storage, and they’ll have set a new precedent as to how fast and how far battery energy storage can go.

A New Kind of Grid

When power companies foresee a higher demand for power, they think about large, grid-scale projects. The grid, our energy supply network, works up to a certain point, but if just one piece of puzzle falls through, like in the case of the Aliso Canyon storage facility, the entire system can break down. If we stop and take a critical look at the fragility of our energy supply system, we see that it could be strengthened by distributing energy generation and storage. This means it’s not just the utility company’s job to store energy… it’s everyone’s job.

Spreading out the sites where energy is generated and stored completely changes the game in the best possible way. If there were enough homeowners who supplemented power with home batteries during peak demand, there would be no need for blackouts at any scale. This isn’t just a pipe dream. Not only is it possible, but it makes economic sense.

Specifically, if utilities worked with neighborhoods where demand is especially high and encouraged homeowners to take advantage of battery energy storage, storing solar energy or energy from the grid during times that electricity demand is low, there would be a huge payoff during the early evening hours… not only for the power companies, but for the battery owners themselves. By storing grid electricity during the day, homeowners could avoid the higher tariffs and additional fees associated with peak demand hours. By storing energy from solar panels, customers could cut their electric bill altogether.

Installing solar panels and home batteries is like building your own micro power plant—one that doesn’t rely on long-range pipelines or huge, vulnerable storage facilities. Residential solar power systems protect homeowners from planned rolling blackouts like the ones we described, and also the more common unexpected power outages that come from bad weather or downed wires. With the ever-improving lithium-ion battery technology we now have at our fingertips, each household has the ability to take their power into their own hands, creating their own clean, reliable power source, and storing energy in their own home.

For those in Los Angeles who have already invested in solar panels and/or home batteries, their investment could pay off handsomely. Not only will they not have to worry about the possibility of rolling power outages, but they’ll slash their utility bills at the same time. Consumers who want to play a role in making sure we have a healthier and more robust energy system don’t need to look any further than renewable energy.

Lead image: First direct overhead photos of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad.  Credit: EARTHWORKS | Flickr

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Anna Gretz writes for Swell Energy’s blog, The Swell. Swell Energy is a leading retailer of home batteries based out of Venice, California. Read more at , and follow Anna on Twitter @Energy_Annie.

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