The Awesome Power of Demand Response

When I first started at EnerNOC 10 years ago, emergency demand response (DR) dispatches were big news. Our entire office mobilized into action, electronic dispatches were sent out to our commercial and industrial customers, our Network Operations Center was abuzz with dispatch analysts ensuring all systems were delivering, and our sales team and executives regularly pinged the team for performance updates. There was a nervous tension in the air; it had the feeling of “game day,” and without fail, the EnerNOC team showed up ready to roll.

So it says something about how far demand response has evolved that, when California ISO (CAISO) dispatched about 800 megawatts of demand response capacity to prevent emergency outages in California earlier this month, I didn’t even notice. Dispatches around here are simply a matter of course—something that happens hundreds of times every year. They’re so "ordinary" that I’ve forgotten to be truly impressed by the resource that EnerNOC has built.

But the power of demand response, particularly given how dramatically the growth of US natural gas and renewables have impacted the grid over the last decade, is worth taking a moment to appreciate. It’s why most of us came to EnerNOC, after all—to change the way the world uses energy and to create the resilient, clean grid of the future.

So, what happened in California?

On May 3, CAISO experienced what’s dubbed a “stage 1” grid emergency, its first in nearly a decade. The reason for the emergency was that electricity demand was almost 2,000 MW above the day-ahead demand forecast, and with solar output rapidly decreasing in the late afternoon, the grid didn’t have enough reserve capacity available to operate reliably. In addition, according to RTOInsider, the warning came just a few days after Southern California Gas warned that restrictions on its Aliso Canyon storage facility could deprive the region’s natural gas-fired generators of enough fuel to avoid blackouts this summer and winter, making the situation even more tenuous.

In response to the impending emergency, CAISO requested that California’s three electric utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas and Electric Company (SDG&E), call on available demand response resources to mitigate the situation. By 9 pm, roughly 2 hours later, 800 MW of DR had been kicked into action.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a picture that Mark Martinez, SCE Manager of Emerging Markets and Technology, posted on his LinkedIn feed following the event:

For all of us energy geeks, this graph is a thing of beauty. It shows the classic “duck curve” caused by the setting sun (the green line, or “net demand”), actual demand (dark blue) edging up higher than forecasted demand, and the dip when 800 megawatts of DR was called to provide critical relief to the grid. (For those visually-inclined readers, Wade Schauer, Research Director, Americas Power & Renewables at Wood Mackenzie also posted a few great graphs.) 

Thanks to the efforts of the manufacturers, universities, office buildings, cold storage facilities, and dozens of other types of businesses that showed up for the May 3rd California dispatch, the lights stayed on throughout the region, and that shouldn’t be taken lightly. To illustrate my point, let’s all remember the impact of the 2003 Northeast blackout. During that blackout, one of the worst in American history, 50 million people lost power. At least 11 people lost their lives. Total cost of the blackout topped $6 billion. In New York, the backup battery systems for the 911 emergency dispatch system failed and each interruption led to a backlog of hundreds of calls. Hospitals stayed open, but powered only by backup generators; hospital units deemed non-critical, like maternity wards, went dark. In the 26 hours after power was lost, dozens of serious fires were reported across the region, half caused by burning candles and a number of others caused by generators malfunctioning.

In the United States, we take for granted that when you flip a switch, the lights will turn on. But our electric grid, which remains largely the same as it was during the time of Edison, is fairly fragile. More and more people are focused on grid resilience, and even after 10 years, it’s still just as exciting to be a part of that solution—not just through traditional demand response, but also by forging a vision for the integration of storage and other distributed energy resources.

So, to the EnerNOC customers who have taken action during a demand response dispatch—either this most recent one in California or any of the hundreds of DR dispatches we manage around the world—thank you. To my fellow EnerNOC employees—the engineers who build the software that make it all work, the operations team who oversee the dispatches and make sure we’re delivering against our commitments, the energy markets team who constantly analyze how best to deploy DR resources, the regulatory affairs and legal teams who went all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure that demand response would continue to be a part of our nation’s energy toolkit—nice work changing the way the world uses energy.

Learn more about how demand response works with this eBook.
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Authored By Sarah McAuley

Sarah's been bleeding EnerNOC blue since 2007 and currently serves as the Vice President of Marketing.

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