Analysis & Comment

Opinion | As Power Grids Wobble, the Hunt Is on for a Fix

In Oregon, some residents are begging electric companies to shut off their power in high winds to prevent the lines from sparking dangerous fires. Power companies that refuse can expect to get sued for keeping the lights on.

In California, that kind of power shut-off is old hat, but now the state is periodically asking people to turn up their thermostats to keep the power grid from collapsing. Parts of it have nearly gone down this summer amid blistering heat waves, and the worst comes this month, when California is at its driest and hottest and most fire prone. Parts of the state are ablaze already.

In New Orleans, a powerful hurricane just knocked out every transmission line into the city. With pumps failing, sewage backing up and food in their refrigerators spoiling, people are pleading for the power to come back on, which may take weeks in some places. Hurricane Ida drew its ferocity from the extremely warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which were made hotter by a changing climate.

The age of human-induced global warming is truly upon us. None of this damage would be as bad if we were not scorching the planet by burning fossil fuels and dumping the resulting greenhouse gases into the air.

Our power grids are showing the strain. Temperatures are reaching such dangerous levels — an unheard-of 115 degrees in Portland in June — that having access to air-conditioning is becoming a matter of life and death. Historically people in the cool Pacific Northwest did not need air-conditioners, but millions of them are likely to be added to homes in the next few years.

That, of course, will add to the strain on the power grid. The same will be true nationally, as people run their air-conditioners harder to cope with the fiendish heat that we have unleashed upon ourselves. Coal- and gas-fired power plants will rev up to cope with the demand, pumping out more greenhouse gases that will make the heat worse.

We desperately need Congress to pass the climate plans that President Biden has put forth, including sweeping measures to upgrade the electric grid and ready the nation for what is coming.

But we also need creative thinking in the states to find new ways to cut emissions — and to better manage the climate disasters that can no longer be avoided. California, as it has so often in the past, may be showing us a way forward.

For many years, power companies have understood the potential to make the electric grid smarter, in part by giving consumers better information about their electric use and how to control it, but they were slow to move. Now, under the pressure of looming electricity shortages, we are seeing some big steps forward.

In California, a resident can sign up with a company called OhmConnect and earn discounts on their power bills by responding to signals of distress on the electric grid. You might get a text from OhmConnect at 4 p.m., for example, and respond by going around the house turning off lights and unnecessary appliances. That reduction would be measured at your electric meter, and you would get points from the company that could be turned into cash or rewards like gift cards.

Less demand at your house and thousands of others would free up power to meet demand elsewhere on the grid. It sounds better than firing up another gas-burning power plant, no? Better yet, this kind of grid management has the potential to get even smarter.

Nicole Raven is a busy mother of three living in Kingsburg, Calif. It’s located in the arid Great Central Valley, and scorching summers are the norm. She and her husband bought a house a few years ago and before they even moved in, got an electric bill for $600. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she recalled.

They installed a solar power system to generate some of their own electricity, but wanted to go further. On Facebook, she tripped across a link to sign up for OhmConnect’s service. The company promised that she would be paid for saving money during grid emergencies. “I called people to see if it was real,” she said. “All I heard was good reviews.”

The company, founded in 2014, gave the couple a smart thermostat to install on their air-conditioner, linking it to OhmConnect’s computers so the company could automatically turn the temperature up a couple of degrees. The Ravens got smart plugs to install on power-hungry devices. Ms. Raven even put one on her refrigerator, which lets the company shut off power to the fridge for an hour or so at a time. Refrigerators are well-insulated and stay cold for many hours, so she has not found it to be a problem.

And she has been astonished by the money she can make conserving power when the company declares an “OhmHour,” its term for stress on the grid. “In a hot streak, when we get two OhmHours in a week, I can make $140,” Ms. Raven said. “It’s unreal.” She makes the choice whether to let the company manage her power consumption. “If we have people over and it’s 110 outside, I can override it,” she said.

Where is OhmConnect getting the money to pay her? By aggregating the savings of many thousands of customers and selling that abated electrical demand into the California power market, just the way the owner of a gas-fired power plant would sell kilowatt-hours of generated power into the market. Since the company declares OhmHours only when the grid is stressed and power prices are high, it can be paid handsomely for suppressing demand.

“I’m not spinning straw into gold,” said Cisco DeVries, the chief executive of OhmConnect. “All this money is flowing from the markets.”

During a grid emergency in late 2020, the company suppressed enough electrical demand to replace the output from an entire gas-fired power station. And the company is planning a big expansion. Indeed, across the nation, this type of demand management needs to expand rapidly as the stresses on the power grid intensify.

California still has profound grid problems, including aging, poorly maintained power lines that can readily spark fires. Its largest utility was recently forced into bankruptcy reorganization by fire liabilities. The state may be critically short of power in a few years when its last nuclear power station closes. The three state agencies that manage the system have spent too much time pointing fingers at one another and not enough solving these issues.

But the recent emergencies, including a spate of rolling blackouts in late 2020, have stirred the agencies from their torpor. If California avoids unplanned blackouts this month, it will be proof that the state has found a way forward through smarter grid management.

The rest of the United States must follow suit. Electric companies have used this type of demand management on a small scale for decades, generally signing up a few factories willing to have their power cut in a grid emergency. But the big opportunity is to take the idea into tens of millions of homes and apartments, using it routinely to gain much larger power savings.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric is working hard on this kind of grid improvement. But in the Carolinas, Duke Power has hatched a ludicrous plan to build 10 or 15 new gas-fired power plants. That would be a calamity for the climate. Instead, Duke ought to be enlisting OhmConnect and similar companies, substituting intelligence for fossil gas.

Years ago, we ignored the warnings from scientists because we lacked the foresight to see what a changing climate could really do to us. Now we are learning. If we are to survive the calamities of this era, the tool we will need most is the imagination to find a better way forward.

Justin Gillis, a former environmental writer for The Times, is a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. He is working on a book about how to solve global warming.

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