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Three steps businesses can take to help prevent summer blackouts

by Ana Lopez
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Joseph leads the North American operations of ev.energya global provider of electric vehicle (EV) charging software.

As summer approaches, some Americans may already be receiving warnings — as many often do this time of year — that warmer temperatures could also cause power outages if they’re not careful. Indeed, increasingly extreme weather and the early retirement of fossil fuel power plants are converging to push the country’s power grids to the limit. And aside from the tremendous inconvenience of power outages, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated that these outages could be up to $70 billion a year.

In May 2022, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation released its annual report Summer reliability rating, which serves as a crystal ball for how things might develop during the summer months. Not surprisingly, much of the North American power grid flashed red in NERC’s assessment. The reasons included drought and snowfall below normal, leading to less hydropower in the western US, and new and unforeseen sources of electricity demand, such as cryptocurrency mining in Texas.

The reality of the summer of 2022 was a mixed bag. Heat waves in June move across the Midwest and South led to power outages. Remarkable, California narrowly avoided blackouts during a 10-day heat wave that spanned late August and early September, despite the governor’s emergency services office having to resort to sending residents conservation emergency warnings on Sept 6.

Lessons learned from the summer of 2022

Overall, the U.S. power grid performed better in 2022 than during the previous two summers, according to Utility dive. Experts attribute this to a combination of less challenging weather conditions and the accumulation of several reliability-related improvements.

California is a particularly good case study of a grid; operated by the California Independent System Operator, the state managed to avoid summer blackouts thanks to several successful initiatives. After California experienced summer blackouts in 2020, approx 3.9 gigawatt battery storage came online. And in 2021, California implemented a new demand response stimulus program with more than 1.5 million customers register for the summer of 2022.

In Texas, reforms on both the electricity supply and demand side are designed to prevent widespread blackouts like the one that plagued the state in February 2021. 2.5 GW of wind, solar and battery storage signed interconnection agreements, which help by increasing the margin that Texas’ grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, can use for balancing purposes. On the demand side, the Texas Public Utility Commission approved a distributed energy pilot to unlock 80 megawatts of flexible resources.

In New England, the power grid remained stable throughout the summer. From my perspective, this was largely due to robust energy efficiency and scaled-up demand response programs. Between 2015 and 2020, the New England states invested $5.8 billion in energy efficiency programs; as a result, the New England grid operator now enjoys a demand-sized flexibility portfolio 20% of the system’s total capacity.

Three steps to help prevent summer blackouts

The U.S. power grid is undergoing a one-time transformation, as new energy sources from renewables come online along with unprecedented new sources of demand from the electrification of vehicles and buildings. This is all happening while climate change is causing more and more extreme weather that continues to push the power grid to the breaking point.

Summertime blackouts don’t have to be an uncomfortable part of life Americans have to deal with, though. From my experience working in the electric vehicle charging space, below are three steps I believe business executives at power companies across the country can take to help support the power grid this summer.

Involve energy consumers via mobile.

Americans spend a third of their waking hours on their mobile devices, according to data.ai’s “State of Mobile in 2022” report. So I believe that when energy saving measures are needed, the most effective campaigns will use mobile apps and text messages. This is especially important for companies that make high energy consumption devices such as air conditioners and thermostats. For example, during the Labor Day 2022 heat wave in California, text messages were sent 27 million mobile phones in high demand areasand electricity consumption dropped by more than 2,000 MW just minutes after New York Times reported.

Providing energy consumers with a way to opt-in or opt-out of savings events.

Everyday consumers will only participate in demand response programs if they are given the freedom to opt out of energy conservation events when needed. Companies need to combine transparent communication with an easy way for energy consumers to say “no thanks”.

Consider investing in power lines.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act released $65 billion in funding for new high-voltage lines to expand renewable energy. As major sustainable developers commit to spending more than 4 billion dollars to build an offshore wind energy supply chain on the east coast of the US, I think there’s a great opportunity for companies to come to the table and free up funding to transfer that power to Midwestern states, which could help increase the region’s summer operational reserves.

Rolling blackouts have become synonymous with summer in certain parts of the country, but they don’t have to be. States like California and Texas are beginning to learn from disruptive past events, with some joint initiatives showing promising signs of success. With new government and private funds available, energy companies can leverage smart consumer engagement strategies to reduce demand before the grids reach breaking point.

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