Southern California Edison: The power to change
Southern California Edison has been a model of how a large utility can successfully adapt to climate control regulations requiring an increase in renewable energy.
History of Southern California Edison
Southern California Edison (SCE), a subsidiary of the publically traded utilities holding company Edison International, is one of the largest electric utilities in the world, serving 15 million people across Southern California. SCE’s history is intertwined with the history of the region, tracing its roots back to the small, local utilities that powered Los Angeles’ initial industrial boom in the late-1800s and incorporating following a series of mergers in the early-1900s. SCE has long been a leader in renewable energy, becoming the first investor-owned utility in the U.S. to operate a commercial nuclear reactor in 1957, working with the U.S. Department of Energy on wind and solar power generation alternatives starting in 1970, and installing its first large-scale solar power plant the Mohave Desert in 1982.1
Background on California renewables legislation
California has been an international leader in the push towards renewable energy production since 2005, when Governor Schwarzenegger committed California to the same greenhouse gas emissions cuts agreed to by much of the world in the 1997 Kyoto Climate Treaty (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below baseline 1990 levels by 2050). To ensure this goal was reached, California’s current governor, Jerry Brown, added an interim target of a 40% drop in emissions by 2030 in April 20152 and in September 2015, the California legislature passed a law requiring California to get half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. While this legislation appears to be in line with the targets set by other developed countries in Europe and Japan, it is in fact far more aggressive due to California’s rapidly growing population.3
SCE’s response to renewables legislation and continued challenges
SCE’s vision for a 21st century power system4
SCE is attacking these regulatory mandates through a two-prong approach, centered around both increased generation of renewable power and mechanisms to better control how power is used on their network. In 2004, prior to Governor Schwarzenegger’s initial commitment, SCE was already the nation’s largest purchaser of renewable energy.5 In the 10 years since, SCE has increased their renewable power generation by ~40% as a result of both large infrastructure projects, such as the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, and an increase in small scale home power generation, largely through government incentives that encouraged homes to add solar panels to their roofs.6 While SCE now gets ~24% of its total energy from renewable sources, the significant variance in electricity generation from these new sources has resulted in mismatches between energy production and demand during particularly sunny or windy periods.7 To smooth the energy production curve, SCE is currently in the middle of installing the largest grid-connected energy storage purchase in U.S. history. This will allow excess energy production to be stored and used during peak demand periods, rather than simply wasted.8 Additionally, SCE is working to modernize its power distribution network through the installation of smart meters and remote monitoring and control devices, along with a digital communications network to link these sensors together. These investments will enable increased more detailed demand forecasting capabilities that will lead to increased efficiency in power generation.9
Example daily electricity use curve10
In addition to these regulation-required changes, SCE is also preparing for a significant change in patterns of electricity demand due to electric vehicles. Currently, electricity demand has significant peaks (ramping up through the afternoon when A/C is in use through the early evening when people come home from work) and valleys (from the later evening when people go to sleep through the morning when people go to work). California is already the highest penetrated electric vehicle state and adoption is expected to rapidly increase over the next decade.11 Electric vehicles have the potential to change current electricity usage patterns, with owners charging their cars at night, leading to a smoother curve, with a smaller valley. While there is significant headroom to produce energy to meet this demand, the ability of distribution system components, such as transformers, to handle this new demand structure is uncertain. These components were designed to handle current usage patterns and the long-term impact of a constant high load remains uncertain.12 While SCE has done an admirable job of adapting to the regulatory requirements placed in front of them, they also need to invest to ensure that their distribution system is prepared to handle similar changes in consumer energy requirements.
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- “Our History, Edison International.” www.edison.com/home/about-us/our-history.html, accessed Nov. 2016.
- Kahn, Gabriel. “Did California Figure Out How to Fix Global Warming?” www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/03/california-cuts-greenhouse-gas-jerry-brown-growth-energy, accessed Nov. 2016. accessed Nov. 2016.
- Notthoff, Annie. “Governor Brown Signs Pathbreaking Climate and Clean Energy Legislation.” www.nrdc.org/experts/annie-notthoff/governor-brown-signs-pathbreaking-climate-and-clean-energy-legislation, accessed Nov. 2016
- Hoover, Michael (SCE Senior Director of State Regulatory Affairs). “Smart Grid and Climate Change.” www.smartgridclimatechange.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Mike-Hoover-SCE.pdf, accessed Nov. 2016.
- “Major New Solar Energy Project Announced By Southern California Edison and Stirling Energy Systems, Inc.” newsroom.edison.com/releases/major-new-solar-energy-project-announced-by-southern-california-edison-and-stirling-energy-systems-inc, accessed Nov. 2016
- “Respecting & Protecting the Environment.” https://www.sce.com/wps/portal/home/about-us/who-we-are/corporate-responsibility/protecting-the-environment, accessed Nov. 2016.
- Gardiner, Beth. “California Leads a Quiet Revolution.” www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/business/energy-environment/california-leads-a-quiet-revolution.html, accessed Nov. 2016.
- “CESA: Largest Utility Energy Storage Purchase in History Announced in California.” www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/cesa-largest-utility-energy-storage-purchase-in-history-announced-in-california-281637911.html, accessed on Nov. 2016.
- Southern California Edison 2016 Annual Report
- eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=130, accessed on Nov. 2016
- “Fact #936: August 1, 2016 California Had The Highest Concentration Of Plug-In Vehicles Relative To Population In 2015.” energy.gov/eere/vehicles/fact-936-august-1-2016-california-had-highest-concentration-plug-vehicles-relative, accessed Nov. 2016
- Kintner-Meyer, K. Schneider, R. Pratt. “Impacts Assessment of PEV on Utilities and Regional U.S. Power Grids, Part 1: Technical Analysis.” Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, May 2007.
Student comments on Southern California Edison: The power to change
Its interesting that you mention “To smooth the energy production curve, SCE is currently in the middle of installing the largest grid-connected energy storage purchase in U.S. history”. I wonder though, what technology is being used for the storage. I feel that constant charging and recharging of large scale batteries would cause them to be useless very fast. That also makes me wonder what is the cost of this project, and how this cost being passed on to consumers. Ultimately though, I agree with your sentiment that SCE’s main challenge is to “ensure that their distribution system is prepared to handle similar changes in consumer energy requirements.”
SCE is certainly a leader amongst domestic utilities with it’s focus on renewable generation from an early stage. You mentioned that SCE has increased renewable power generation by ~40%, but largely accompanied by government incentives. What steps should SCE take now that most government incentives have expired to continue to additional of renewable generation installation? My view is that they push programs to curtail overall power use, similar to campaigns across Southern California to cut water usage in response to the drought. The energy storage mechanism will help “smooth the demand” curve – but how efficient is this technology? And given 76% of SCE’s power comes from sources outside of renewables, how much of the production curve is really influenced by wind and solar generation? I would urge SCE to expand its nuclear generation program in parallel to it’s existing programs, as this provides a much larger base load capacity that is zero-carbon emitting.
You mentioned that SCE is working to install smart meters and remote control devices as well as build a digital communications network to assist with better demand forecasting. I worked at a company that manufactures smart meters and while I’m excited about the technology, I remain very skeptical about adoption. It is extremely difficult to build and scale a digital communications network and without it, smart meters are useless. Besides the technological complexity, consumers are also not convinced that smart meters are safe since there have been several reports that smart meters lead to fires . In order to get more traction, SCE and other utilities will probably need more help and support from the government, regulatory agencies, and the private sector.
Phil – great post! I spent the past two years living out in CA and I am beyond impressed by the aggressive green initiatives supported by the state. It is a true testament to the eco friendly culture that CA is known for. I really enjoyed reading about the SCE’s two pronged approach to lowering energy consumption in Southern CA. I agree that electricity monitoring is a key component to energy efficiency. I found it particularly interesting how you highlighted that peak energy demands (at least in Southern CA, I am sure it is similar in other states) occurs when (1) people get home from work and use AC and (2) AC used to sleep at night. Tesla is also making massive strides in the energy conservation arena. The company has recently released a series of extremely efficient solar panels that are designed to look identical to a variety of rooftops. What is particularly unique about what Tesla is doing is the fact that they have also designed a home battery pack that can store energy collected during the day via sunlight and then use that energy in the afternoons / evenings when energy demand is at its highest. Very cool stuff and thanks for shedding light on such an interesting topic!