Today in Energy

August 24, 2017

California increased electricity imports and natural gas generation during solar eclipse

graph of CAISO electricity generation, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on California Independent System Operator, Daily Renewables Watch

During the solar eclipse that passed across the continental United States on August 21, 2017, solar output on the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) electric system dropped while the sun was partially obscured. Much of the decrease in solar output was made up by increased electricity imports and increased generation from thermal units, most of which is fueled by natural gas.

Although California was not in the path of totality during the eclipse, meaning the sun was not completely obscured, California contains 43% of the national total for utility-scale solar and 40% of small-scale solar, (as of May 2017). Much of the state’s solar capacity is located in areas where sunlight was obscured by as much as 60%–70% during the eclipse.

Based on an average of the previous five weekdays, CAISO’s solar power output typically increases to about 9.1 gigawatts (GW) between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time, or to roughly 31% of total load. On August 21, as the moon partially obscured sunlight, CAISO’s solar power output fell to a low of 3.6 GW for that hour, about 60% lower than normal.

CAISO oversees the operation of the bulk power system in much of California, operating 89% of California’s 10.0 GW of installed utility-scale solar capacity (based on data as of May 2017), including larger solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems of at least one megawatt (MW) in capacity. In addition, California contains 5.7 GW of small-scale PV capacity (based on data as of May 2017). Electricity generation from small-scale capacity is not directly captured by CAISO but is reflected in a smaller overall load.

CAISO worked with other participants in the Western Energy Imbalance Market (EIM) to include the impact of the eclipse in their forecasts so that Tuesday’s planning accurately reflected available electricity supply. The EIM allowed for balancing across much of the Western Interconnect as the eclipse moved across the region and affected solar output in different places at different times. CAISO also worked with natural gas generators in California to ensure sufficient fuel supplies ahead of the eclipse.

CAISO planned for the rapid reduction and resumption of net load caused by the loss of solar during the eclipse by procuring an additional 100 MW to 150 MW of regulation capacity for the eclipse period. Regulation capacity is a market-based ancillary service that is used to cover short-term gaps between demand and supply.

graph of CAISO electricity generation, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on California Independent System Operator, Daily Renewables Watch

On August 21, CAISO total net load between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time was 1.2 GW higher than the average of the previous five weekdays, due in part to the loss of small-scale solar generation that would have reduced load in the absence of the eclipse. Increased output of mainly natural gas-fueled thermal generation and imports of electricity together offset the loss of solar generation resulting from the eclipse.

Thermal generation, almost all of which is fired by natural gas in CAISO, increased by 3.7 GW during the eclipse. Non-solar renewables in CAISO, the majority of which is conventional hydroelectric generation, also slightly increased output during the eclipse. Nuclear generation remained unchanged.

Imports of electricity increased by 2.2 GW during the hour of the eclipse as CAISO drew power from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District in Arizona, and the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest, among others.

graph of CAISO electricity imports, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, EIA-930, U.S. Electric System Operating Data

Wholesale electricity prices in CAISO's day-ahead electricity market were higher for the hours of the eclipse compared with average prices during the week before. The expected decrease in solar generation meant that other higher-priced resources were scheduled to run during the period.

According to CAISO, less solar generation dropped off during the eclipse than they had forecasted, which, coupled with an expected steep increase in solar availability after the eclipse, contributed to brief periods of too much generation on the system. CAISO real-time prices dipped negative immediately after the eclipse, reflecting the oversupply situation, which resulted in some solar generation being curtailed and helped slow the return of solar electricity onto the system across a couple hours.

graph of CAISO electricity prices and curtailments, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on California Independent System Operator

Principal contributor: Cara Marcy, April Lee, Lisa Cabral