To meet California’s new standard requiring the state to get 33 percent of its power from renewables by 2020, the grid operator will have to stop talking about the weather and do something about it. The California Independent System Operator Corporation (ISO) just brought its Mission Critical Wing, a new high tech control center, on line to do that.

“We partnered with Google and we went from your typical map board made of plastic tiles, with digital readouts, to an 81-foot video display wall,” said Stephanie McCorkle, the California ISO’s Director of Communications. “It’s like Minority Report, where Tom Cruise could pull into the wall whatever data he needed.”

The new center, in Folsom, California, incorporates security measures for vital grid operations and for energy delivery commensurate with a post-9/11 world. “It’s no secret that security was a big reason why we built this facility,” McCorkle said, “but we did need a new control center, especially with the thousands and thousands of megawatts of renewable power coming.”

The ISO’s job, McCorkle said, “is to keep the lights on” and “to balance the renewable goals with reliability and with reasonable cost.”

To do so, the system operator will have to “stay one step ahead of nature,” McCorkle explained. Wind and solar are variable but can be managed with accurate weather forecasts.

“That’s what our new control center allows us to do,” McCorkle said. “Advanced forecasting is what will allow us to have the standby power ready” or “to be able to back down the gas-fired generators when all of a sudden we have a surplus.” It is, she concluded, “the most efficient way to integrate the largest wave of renewables brought onto any grid in North America.”

The Mission Critical control center display wall is dominated by remarkable real-time visualizations that use synchrophasor technology tied into GPS systems to allow a snapshot of electricity supply, demand and pricing at 3,000 points (nodes) along the lines every 33 milliseconds. In the middle of the display is data showing how well supply and demand are being managed.

“One quadrant of the display wall is dedicated just to renewable visualization tools,” McCorkle said. “And we have the first dedicated renewable dispatch desk, as well.”

The visualization technologies, McCorkle believes, will make a big difference for renewables. With the old technology, “all you had was digital readouts. That couldn’t tell you when a cloud is going to come over the Mojave Desert. At this new center, we can see the cloud,” she said. “If you lose 200 megawatts of solar generation when that cloud cover comes in, if you can see it coming, you can make sure you’ve got gas-fired generation, or whatever other generation is bid into the market, ready to go.”

The control center has already facilitated new levels of renewable energy integration. “We’ve seen a new peak in wind production,” McCorkle said. They shattered the previous record, going in late April from last year’s high of 1,915 megawatts of wind on the state grid to 2,432 megawatts, a 27 percent jump. And, McCorkle added, sometime during the heat of this summer, “It’s a given that we’re going to top the solar peak.”

Aside from the new modernized visualizations, Mission Critical is also “the backbone to our new nodal market.” Introduced in 2009, the nodal market replaced the previous zonal market’s three-zone pricing system.

The market is an electronic auction house that includes all forms of electricity demand and supply at the system’s 3,000 nodes. “Our new diverse and digital grid,” is how McCorkle described it.

“The nodal market supports diverse resources better,” McCorkle explained. Besides “more granularity” and “more transparency,” she said, it “reveals the cost of delivering power.”

Although the ISO itself does not discriminate between generation sources, it is worth noting this feature of the new market would provide a signal showing where it is cost-effective to develop distributed generation or demand-side management resources.

Google Earth-type maps of California generally show the 3,000 nodes in green lights (indicating normal prices) and, occasionally, in red lights (high prices). Prices are set every five minutes in bidding on the state’s day-ahead and real-time power markets that include all forms of available generation.

In the control center, market dispatchers watch supply, demand and the electronic marketplace. “There is sometimes some manual intervention, McCorkle explained. That would most likely be provoked by unusual activity such as an unforecasted weather event, a wildfire or a transmission outage -- all circumstances requiring what the ISO calls “exceptional dispatch.”

To guard against nefarious activity like California saw in the Enron debacle, McCorkle said, the new control center has the newest in market-monitoring mechanisms and the dispatchers have “bid screens in place to catch bids that are unusual.” They “know who’s bidding what and how many megawatts and at what price.” But normally, she said, “everything is done in an automated fashion through our electronic auction,” adding that “the market is doing the selection” of generation sources. A team of economists, “our market police,” McCorkle called them, oversees market performance.

The control center was designed to the highest LEED standards with a 700-kilowatt PV solar system built into its roof and carport, along with high-efficiency lighting, windows and an energy-saving heating/cooling system. “It’s as green as you can get,” McCorkle said.