“I would like to say that it's a postcard of the future”: Angelina Galiteva on the California power grid and how it can be a model for the world.
In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich was joined by Angelina Galiteva, Chair of the Board of Governors for the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), the organization that oversees the provision of electricity in California.
CAISO has been working to balance renewable energy with fossil fuels, and recently reached a moment where over 90% of electricity being used in California was from renewable resources. Angelina tells Michael how CAISO can be a model for the world, whilst pointing out that the developing world can aim for renewable energy through a slightly different plan.
This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Michael Liebreich: Angelina, welcome to Cleaning Up. What is the California Independent Systems Operator, and what are its jobs?
Angelina Galiteva: It covers the California electricity grid, and it also operates the real time market and the wholesale market for energy sales throughout California. In the last few years, we’ve been able to integrate renewables. We’ve recently decided to launch a voluntary market, which is the energy imbalance market and is open for partners throughout the west to join and optimize the operation of their system. So, California now operates 82% of the western wholesale market in real time, which is very exciting. We're looking forward to launching into the day ahead market too, so that we can optimize even more. Shortly we'll complete a regional transmission operator (RTO), which is the next best thing. So, we want to be able to capture the benefits of the market and integrate more renewables and the result has been decarbonization throughout the west.
ML: You've got the California grid, but then you also talked about the western region. How many grids are there in the western region?
AG: There are separate balancing authorities. In the western region, there's 38 balancing authorities. It's a balkanized system. And each of them is balanced separately with demand and supply. Having an energy imbalance market allows you to be able to integrate those systems and a larger footprint. It means you can balance across a larger geographic area. That optimizes operations where you don't need as many reserves. So, it becomes easier for everybody to operate.
ML: What percentage of renewables and variable renewables have you reached?
AG: Well, we have a very exciting announcement because this month we were able to reach 95.4% operation with renewables on the grid. It was for a few minutes; it wasn't for the whole day. But it was a remarkable record because this shows that it can be done. We're very close to 100%, 4% or 5% short. But it's very difficult to do it for 24 hours, 365 days a year.
We have about 35% to 40% renewables on the grid now, pretty much always. But our biggest challenge is the end of the day, when we are ramping up, solar is going down, and that ramping and flexibility is provided by gas power plants, and peaker plants, which are going to be used less and less and less, but we still need them. So that portion must be decarbonized. And that's where the focus is and that's where our weakness on the system is.
ML: You've got these targets for renewables for 2030 and beyond, which are very aggressive. That's compressing the number of hours that the gas plants operate so they become less and less profitable. You've also shut down the nuclear. But when something breaks it is easy to blame it on the gas, rather than on renewables.
AG: We have brand new peaker plants as well. So, it's not like they're old clunkers that we're relying on, we're relying on good gas plants to be able to provide that energy. But I get your point, it is true, we're going to have gold plated gas turbines that are going to operate very few hours throughout the day, even throughout the year.
The next question is, does it make sense to operate them on gas, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power could be looking at a blend of fuels before a transition to 100% hydrogen for those plants, but the idea is to decarbonize the fuels because if they're not going to be operating as long, you know, 24/7, we don't need them for baseload necessarily.
ML: California is seen as a postcard from the future. But nobody quite can work out whether it's a sort of nightmare postcard, or whether it's a dream postcard. Opponents of renewable energy will say, ‘look how foolish; they did all these things and then they have these power cuts because the sun doesn't shine at night.’ The fans of renewables will say, ‘nothing to see here.’ So, which is it?
AG: It's not because of the renewables. I would like to say that it's a postcard of the future, which is very positive. Even though we had those small outages, which were due to the ISO, one was about 20 minutes, one was about an hour and a half for a few 100,000 customers. If you're looking at operating the system, it's within the parameters of operating a very reliable, and whether fossil-based system or any other kind of system. It wasn't the renewables that were the problem. There were some issues with our software in terms of overcounting some capacity. So, we've increased our margins from 15% to 17.5%. We didn't have enough flexibility and storage because this did happen after 5pm, which is the ramp going upwards. It was a very hot day. It was hot throughout the west, so we couldn't count on imports that were not under contract to really come in, because Las Vegas was 120 degrees. But Portland, Oregon was 105 degrees. Everybody needed power. So, a highly unlikely heatwave that covered all the west and actually strained resources. Also, demand response didn't show up as much as we could have expected. Frankly, what pushed us over the edge was a 400-megawatt power plant not coming online.
ML: Much of what we talked about at the COPs is the developing world and how to balance development and the spreading of wealth and human wellbeing to developing countries who have, in some cases, tremendous fossil fuel resources. But you want them to kind of follow the California path by leapfrogging to the sorts of things that you've been talking about. How do you think about that?
The command center that I visited in California was so sophisticated and it was being run by somebody who was extremely well qualified and had a great deal of experience. Do you think that is feasible in countries who have a shortage of people, such as the person I met in California?
AG: I grew up in East Africa, Tanzania, so I'm very familiar with the area and I also am part of an organization that is a grassroots African organization, ReEnergy Africa. They're like 30%, 40%, electrified at best. So, they can start in the opposite way to the US, for example.
They're going to start with the micro grids, with the individual solar systems and batteries in a community micro grid, hopefully able to bring in education, being able to bring in industry and transportation. You can charge electric vehicles with batteries, solar and with indigenous resources, most of those countries are blessed with renewable resources as well. And then the centralized grid can come in later to interconnect the micro grids and create a larger infrastructure. I see that as a much more feasible path than building centralized powered resources with a backbone grid and then providing electricity for the rest of the nation that hasn't worked.
I see that as a more feasible path than building centralized powered resources with a backbone grid and then providing electricity for the rest of the nation. The beauty of renewable energy and micro grid is that it's almost instantaneous, you can have a community powered with batteries, solar and maybe some other resources. Kenya, for instance, has quite a lot of geothermal in the Rift Valley and developing that could be very exciting. There are hydropower resources that can be harnessed, too.
That's what the countries should be looking at in terms of developing and creating electricity on a fast track, bringing the economic well-being of the community that also empowers girls, it goes into these good initiatives from a social level, and especially educating young people, and they can have access to world class education remotely with electricity expanding.
ML: There are cities and industries that use large scale power. If you look at rural Ethiopia, you're never going to have sort of big, centralized power stations and pylons looping 1000s of miles. But for the cities and the heavy industry, we've got to find solutions that can enable wealth creation and all the other benefits for those communities.
AG: We need to figure out how we can power those city centers and enable industry and economic development to thrive. Look at the progress that Argentina has made in terms of wind. Sebastian Kind and the RenovAR project has enabled Argentina in a very short timeframe to become a leader in wind generation through integration into their grid, offsetting the need for a large swath of fossil fuels. Of course, they did have the benefit of a centralized grid. That was that was something that the country already had, but there are ways for it to be done and there's organizations focused on making that happen.