The problem that San Diego Gas & Electric faces is an odd one: how to get customers to use less of their product.
With 170 million appliance chargers in California and that number expected to double by 2030, electricity and energy providers are struggling to deal with customers’ changing demands on an aging power infrastructure.
Industry leaders discussed these challenges and solutions at the Statewide Environmental Summit on Tuesday.
“So much of the electrical infrastructure in California, and it’s not exclusive to California, but so much of the infrastructure in California is very old, and very inflexible and inefficient,” said Rob Oglesby, executive director at the California Energy Commission. “And so we’re at a time now when we need to invest in our infrastructure so that we can have a healthy economy and have a reliable grid.”
Part of this investment comes in the form of renewable energy. The state goal of sourcing 33 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020 is well on its way, hitting the 20 percent mark in 2011.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s energy plan further specified the breakdown of some of this energy, calling for 8,000 megawatts of large-scale solar, wind and geothermal to be put in place.
While renewable energy alleviates certain problems, it creates other challenges.
Jim Spurgeon, the customer choice and rate manager at SDG&E, said renewables are a great addition to the system, but have led to issues of consistency.
He said photovoltaics are particularly challenging because of their uneven energy production, creating waves of energy shortage and high supply. One solution is in the hands of the customer.
“What we’re asking is that customers really think about engaging and participating in our demand response programs,” Spurgeon said.
These programs give customers -- largely commercial and industrial at this point -- financial incentives for cutting energy use during peak times of day or certain times of year, like hot summer days.
There are a variety of programs that work in different ways to help smooth out the energy availability, from year-round rate cuts to monthly bill credits.
There are plans to expand these programs to residential customers as advanced metering products hit the market.
Other solutions lie in the technology field and the marketplace.
“With the introduction of all the new technologies that we’re seeing with regard to renewable energy and other things such as plug-in electric vehicles, customers are using our electric grid a lot different than they used to,” Spurgeon said.
The average household in California has 11 chargers, some of which, like those for electric vehicles, put high strain on the system.
The California Energy Commission set efficiency standards on battery charges in January 2012 that start being phased in by February 2013, with all sectors fully compliant by January 2017.
Because two-thirds of battery chargers’ energy is wasted, this regulation is expected to save Californians 2,200 gigawatt-hours of energy a year, not to mention $300 million annually and a 1 million metric ton reduction in carbon emissions.
Oglesby said there is no downside to these standards, not even to manufacturers.
“The level of intelligence you have to impart into the appliance or battery charger to turn off after the appliance is charged is really not high-tech, it’s something that can be easily done and just needs to be incorporated into the manufacturing process,” Oglesby said. “There hasn’t been any pressure in the system [to make these changes].”
As for how increased reliance on renewables will affect power plants and utilities, Rob Anderson -- director of resource planning at SDG&E -- said the main difference will likely be felt by peak power plants, which will be forced to turn on once or twice a day to accommodate for renewable energy’s inconsistency.
These jet-engine sized, 50 megawatt smaller producers are already scattered throughout San Diego.
Whereas the larger, older plants take upwards of 15 hours to fire up before producing energy, these peak plants take 10 minutes to come online.
Some of these older plants on the coast are likely to be phased out due to the inefficiency of their once-through cooling systems.
“So peaker plants are going to be used for what’s called renewable integration. We’re seeing that the demand, the shape of the demand after renewables has a very different shape than what has historically happened,” Anderson said. “A lot of these plants are getting used for other reasons other than just meeting the summer peak, because the load in the morning as everyone gets up and starts turning everything on will take off and shoot up rather quickly. So we turn on the peaker plant, run it for an hour while some of the other plants kind of catch up, and then we’ll shut them off.”
An additional resource waiting in the wings is the San Onofre nuclear generator, which remains closed after new steam generator tubes were found to have design issues.
Southern California Edison has filed with the National Regulatory Commission to be able to operate one of the plant’s generators at 70 percent for 150 days during the summer peak, after which time it will shut down and have the steam generators inspected.
There is no verdict yet from the NRC on this proposal, though Anderson said he thinks the reliability for 2013 looks to be the same as this year.
With the plant’s license set to expire in 2022, Anderson said he wasn’t speculating on its use in 2014 or 2015, as an analysis of the costs of repairing the reactor for those few years versus shutting it down early is yet to be completed.