The West is in a transformative time, balancing aggressive carbon reduction and clean energy targets while maintaining a reliable and affordable energy system. Sustaining that balance requires complex planning and sound decision-making, two things that California electricity grid operators showed in September’s multiday, 100-plus degree heat wave. 

Speculation that California’s grid would be stretched to maximum capacity, resulting in large but limited outages, did not come true as the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the entity that manages most of California’s grid, skillfully maintained reliability. CAISO demonstrated that customer-side resources are valuable and affordable tools, and in stress conditions are crucial to keeping the power on during climate change-driven extreme weather events.  

CAISO utilized resources, like conservation, demand response, energy efficiency and storage, in a coordinated manner, throughout the heat wave in order to maintain a reliable grid. The Northwest can learn several lessons from California’s use of customer-side resources as we grapple with our own extreme weather events. 

CAISO issued daily Flex Alerts encouraging consumers to conserve electricity, resulting in about 1,000 megawatts (MW) of savings. CAISO also saved 2,000 MW of power by tapping into demand response programs, such as the new Emergency Load Reduction Program. On Sept. 6, peak demand was still going to be higher than supply, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency alert to all Californians to conserve electricity, quickly resulting in an additional 2,000 to 2,500 MW of conservation. The Northwest should accelerate adoption of similar demand response programs to benefit our grid and reduce usage during peak times. 

Demand response was not the only customer-side resource that helped maintain a reliable grid. The 3,300 MW of batteries that California has added to its grid since July 2020 discharged more than 3,000 MW of electricity during the evening peak demand on Sept. 5, keeping the grid reliable. The Northwest is lucky that it has a huge hydropower system that can often serve like a battery. However, with climate change, we cannot rely on our hydropower system at all times, especially in late summer when drought and heat waves are expected. Our region should be strategically investing in energy storage to support peak energy use and avoid power system failure during extreme weather events in both the winter and summer. 

Energy efficiency, another customer-side resource, also played a role in maintaining a reliable grid during the heat wave. California saved 4,140 GWh of electricity from energy efficiency in 2021. The state is committed to a doubling of statewide energy efficiency savings by 2030. California’s per capita electricity use has remained flat, while the rest of the U.S.’s per capita energy use has increased by about 33%. Energy efficiency reduces electricity loads, allowing CAISO to meet demand with less resources.

The Northwest also has a strong history of energy efficiency adoption, saving more than 7,200 average MW since 1978 and keeping per capita electricity use flat. However, demand for electricity is expected to rapidly grow as electrification and decarbonization advance. We must continue to invest in energy efficiency to keep lower peak demands and maintain reliability. Energy efficiency should be the first resource to procure as we decarbonize the grid. 

Technological innovations are transforming the power grid into a multidirectional, interactive system. California is in the beginning stages of this transformation, and we recognize that both gas plants and Diablo Nuclear Power Plant received operating extensions due to reliability concerns. However, if we plan for this new system of shaping and managing demand, we will be able to shift off fossil fuel electricity generation quicker and easier, with more benefits for customers and utilities.