Jim Detmers is the former COO of the California Independent Systems Operator. His job -- and the job of any ISO -- is to KTLO (Keep The Lights On). He spoke at EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute) last week in an event sponsored by Young Professionals in Energy and hosted by EPRI's Sarah Inwood and Pedram Mokrian of Mayfield Fund. It was the first in a series called "Behind the Light Switch." Detmers provided an electrical grid pop quiz to test your electron knowledge that we reprinted here.  

Jim Detmers was the gentleman who called the rolling black-outs in the California energy crisis of 2001.  
Detmers' talk covered the topic of grid dispatch. But the real crux of the presentation -- and the sobering bit of news for many in the renewable energy field -- was Detmers' take on renewables like wind and solar as well as energy storage.

His talk sounded a tocsin to every entrepreneur in solar and wind -- that if you're not intimately attuned to the application for your product and the needs of the bigger system -- you will never make a business within the electrical utility. At least in the utility and regulatory landscape as it now stands.

Detmers does foresee a change. He declared, "What we are dealing with is a major transformation of the current system," adding that it's "not necessarily being noticed by the utilities." He saw the change impacting "generation, transmission, distribution, and customers."

This echoes a separate conversation I had with EPRI's Bryan Hannegan, where Hannegan envisions the coming decade as "the most disruptive decade that the utility market has seen in its history."
In a political era where California and other states are mandating 20 percent or 33 percent or even 40 percent Renewable Portfolio Standards, the current system is not designed to deal with that level of variability, according to Detmers. "The system is not designed to accept that proportion of renewables."

(Even with the help of any newly minted fancy control rooms, as covered in a recent GTM piece.)

"When you talk about the power system, there are no experts," according to Detmers. "There are specialists -- but nobody knows all the parts of it. Even utilities don't understand the customer."

There are 1,500 generators in the CAISO system spanning 26,000 circuit miles. "This is a very big system," in Detmers' words, and "supply and demand has to be balanced," adding, "a day like today has about 30,000 megawatts on the system and has to be balanced within 100 megawatts." An oversupply of power raises the frequency and could trip generators off in other regions. If you undersupply and frequency goes down to 59.65 Hz, load comes off automatically via protective relays. The 60 Hz system speed has to be maintained. But intermittent wind and solar can put that supply and demand out of balance rapidly and unpredictably.

The existing system is focused on hitting peak demand, according to Detmers, and we need to understand the impacts of wind and solar, despite the assurance of researchers and politicians.

Detmers said that "Germany has some very serious conditions" with its 15,000 megawatts of wind and 17,000 megawatts of distributed solar. "We have a lot to understand about when we transform to a varying supply."

"We can currently ramp generators at 63 megawatts per minute," but "early studies show that we need over 400 megawatts per minute to cope with a 33 percent RPS," according to Detmers. "We need new technology," he concludes.

How about energy storage? Detmers said, "If designed to solve problems on the power system side, yes" -- but he added, "All of those battery companies waiting for an instruction -- that's not providing right value to the system or the ISO."

How about demand response? "Two years ago, if you asked me if demand response was the answer -- the answer was 'yes.'"  But today, Detmers' view is that "it has to be packaged and made to come on to the system" better equipped. Otherwise, "it's limited."

Does diversity on the grid obviate the need for baseload power? If wind and solar are distributed across broad areas -- doesn't that average and smooth out the variability? Detmers' answer is: "Diversity does not eliminate variability." It can help, but "we don't have an infinite bus," adding, "Solar does not solve demand issues on the grid."

Does the ISO even know how much load is on the system? The answer is that load is not measured -- it's calculated!  "The ISO can see the whole supply side of the equation, adding the power from the generators to the amount of imported electricity."

Detmers, no longer with the CAISO, currently advises a number of energy startups and noted that "people are developing and funding startups in a vacuum. Some of the technology does not have the functionality that a customer or the utility or the power system actually need."

Every energy startup with aspirations of being integrated onto the grid needs to heed those words.