How Los Angeles can use proofs of concept to lead California’s energy revolution

Back in September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that targets moving all of California’s electricity to clean power sources by 2045. It’s an ambitious goal and one that is definitely within reach if our utilities, power generators and legislators take the right steps to determine the most effective infrastructure updates and mix of energy sources and uncover the hidden challenges of a clean energy rollout.

Though more than 30 percent of L.A.’s power currently comes from renewables, the fact is that right now, L.A.’s energy grid is not in a place to achieve 100 percent clean power.

Our current renewable energy sources are not being used as efficiently as possible, which will be necessary if we are to use cost-effective measures to move to clean power over the next 30 years. The biggest issue: we have too much energy available when we don’t need it and not enough energy when we do.

With few places to store solar-produced energy, a dip in midday demand means that some of California’s solar power plants are being asked to turn off when they could be producing much-needed power. A lack of demand during the day or due to cooler weather combined with a lack of storage means that the plants must shut off or the excess energy could cause a blackout.

“That’s zero-carbon clean energy,” said Keith Casey, a vice president at the California Independent System Operator, in an interview with KQED. “It would just be a travesty to curtail large amounts of it.”

At the same time, our current renewable energy infrastructure is currently unable to provide all the power needed during peak demand hours, which is usually around 5-8 p.m., when the sun is setting and solar power generation declines. This phenomenon is known as the duck curve, or the steep rise in energy demand at the end of the day. This means that excess solar energy is not available when L.A. needs it most. Currently, that evening demand gap is being filled by natural gas power, which is not renewable and therefore not an option to meet the state’s 2045 goal.

To solve these complex problems, we almost certainly have to diversify our energy sources. Wind power may be the answer to replace our natural gas plants, but L.A. will have to create a reliable way to store its renewable energy and transmit it on the grid or it could face similar delivery problems as solar power does when wind levels fall.

It’s clear that over the next 30 years, L.A. must experiment with new technology and ideas to solve these problems. In these circumstances, the most effective way for the city to uncover the best path toward 100 percent renewables is a concept rooted in software development: a proof of concept (PoC).

This process of quickly testing a prototype to determine feasibility could save millions of dollars during the transition to renewables by helping L.A. discover which ideas are viable — and which aren’t — before full-scale investment. They can be used to test various ideas against each other or to iterate aspects of a proposed solution until it meets the city’s goals.

PoCs will become increasingly important as the digital side of renewable energy grows. Solutions powered by the internet of things, such as smart meters that track energy usage or smart grids that can ensure that the right amount of renewable power is available when needed, will likely be crucial in L.A.’s energy future.

These solutions represent a significant investment, and using PoCs to reduce the risk and time needed to roll out these ventures will be critical to enabling clean energy in time to meet Gov. Brown’s target date.

2045 may seem like a long way away, but with all the work to be done, it’s time for L.A. to start making these changes now.

L.A. should seek partners who can apply the PoC process to energy infrastructure as we transition to renewables. We’ve made great strides in improving our energy grid in recent years, but only by using PoCs and partners that can solve these issues will we meet our clean energy goals.

Joaquin Lippincott is the founder of Metal Toad, a software consultancy that has helped modernize software for industry leaders like Sony, Daimler, Intel, the Golden Globes, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, ABC, NBC, DC Comics, Warner Brothers and the Linux Foundation.

How Los Angeles can use proofs of concept to lead California’s energy revolution, by Joaquin Lippincott, Biz Journals Los Angeles, December 17, 2018.

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