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Renewable energy and the Californian continuity conundrum

This week, California’s challenges with power continuity have been thrust into the media. While service reliability in the US isn’t a widespread issue, weather events are known to be a common cause of outages and interruptions. In California this month, where a heatwave has resulted in high demand for air conditioning, the grid is struggling to maintain a constant supply of electricity across the state.

On August 14th, the California Independent System Operator (ISO) declared a statewide Stage 2 Emergency, stating that excessive heat had driven up electricity use and put a strain on the grid. After a natural gas unit tripped offline, the ISO issued a Stage 3 Electrical Emergency, implementing rolling blackouts in order to achieve overall grid reliability – a strategy designed to reduce the likelihood of uncontrolled blackouts.

As well as causing a strain on demand, the extreme heat and increased reliance on air conditioning put additional stress on generators. An article in Bloomberg Green states that California grid operators cited the failure of a 500-megawatt generator, which tripped offline unexpectedly during peak demand hours Friday, as well as a 750-megawatt unit that was out of service didn’t return until after the peak hit. If both had been in service, a spokesperson is quoted as saying, then the grid operators wouldn’t have had to call for outages.

For Paul Brickman, Sales and Marketing Director at Cresthic Loadbanks, the situation in California highlights the fact that renewables bring with them a certain level of risk. Paul explains, “For many years now, California, like many other states, cities and countries, has been committed to moving towards a greener future. It currently gets around 1/3 of its power from solar, wind and other renewable sources, with a push to increase this percentage hugely in the coming years. While the aim is commendable, the reality is that the transition could mean a fragile and less reliable electricity supply for years to come.”

As experts in the manufacture and supply of load bank technology – which is used to test and maintain back-up generators – the company has seen an uptick in demand for backup generators, which are vital standby power sources for applications that use renewables. However, explains Paul, citing the recent generator failure which contributed to this month’s blackouts across the state of California, generators need to be 100% reliable, or they’re not worth having.

“The real issue here is reliability” Paul explains. “When the sun fades and the wind drops, power generation also wanes. While there is a lot of R&D time and money being invested in technologies designed to store surplus power, they aren’t available yet. But, when the sun sets, solar output plummets and the warm evenings mean demand remains high, there is a discrepancy between supply and demand. It is the fragility of these renewables that creates a dependence on reliable back-up.”

Balancing supply and demand for variable sources of power is a known issue. Wind farms, solar plants and renewable energy facilities all use generators as a reliable source of backup power – for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine! Yet, when gensets are installed for back-up power generators in the event of an undersupply, it is absolutely critical that they actually work when called upon.

Paul continues, “It’s widely established that having backup power is critical. Yet, wherever there is standby power, there is also a need for a loadbank – a device that is used to create an electrical load which imitates the operational or ‘real’ load that a generator would use under operational conditions. The loadbank is used to test, support, or protect a critical backup power source and ensure that it is fit for purpose in the event that it needed. By testing and maintaining the system using a resistive reactive load bank, users can get a clear picture of how well an entire system will withstand changes in load patterns while experiencing the level of power that would typically be encountered.”

Paul concludes “The increase in renewable energy generation brings with it a risk of fluctuations, which has undoubtedly lead to more sites wanting generators. However, simply having them on site isn’t enough. The only way to guarantee the reliability of backup gensets is to test them often. Test them properly. Test them with a loadbank. Failing to do so is a sure route to unplanned downtime.”

For more information on loadbanks and the critical role of testing, visit www.crestchicloadbanks.com

Northbridge Industrial Services (LON:NBI) has two core activities, Crestchic Loadbanks and Tasman Oil Tools. Crestchic is a specialist electrical equipment business which manufactures, sells and rents loadbanks and transformers from its base in Burton on Trent and has depots in France, Germany, Belgium, UAE and Singapore. Crestchic also has satellite locations in China and the USA.

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