Today’s dynamic power industry demands flexible, efficient electricity generation — fundamentals that have been tested as the industry adapts its infrastructure to achieve ambitious renewable energy goals. System reliability remains paramount as the environmental and economic benefits of renewable generation stimulate rapid growth of renewables in the power generation mix.

As utilities retire fossil fuel plants and integrate wind and solar generation, they must plan and implement strategies to bridge this transition and manage contingencies that balance the intermittent nature of renewables. Foresight and flexibility are key to continuing along this path to decarbonization.

In August 2020, Californians suffered through the challenges of this transition when a heat wave struck the West Coast, causing the demand for air conditioning to soar. During those peak hours, California utilities found themselves short on electricity, leading to brief rolling blackouts — the state’s first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis. This was a side effect of the state’s increasing shift to solar and wind, coupled with stretched power capacity and limited ability to import power from neighboring states that were enduring the same heat wave. This is a cautionary tale for other states seeking to increase renewable energy and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

Throughout this transition, as utilities aim to meet decarbonization goals and sustain reliable generation no matter the conditions, they will have to lean on various technologies for dispatchable generation. Battery storage, reciprocating engines and gas turbines with black start capabilities will still be necessary to support wind and solar generation dips, especially in the face of natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires or severe winter storms.

Battery energy storage will be a long-term player in the grid of the future. When coupled with wind and solar generation, large-capacity batteries can store excess energy during peak solar or wind hours, dispatching when demand is high. While battery storage technologies have become more cost-effective with significant advancement in recent years, energy storage installations have not kept pace with the closure of power plants.

Reciprocating engine generator technology is also compatible with the intermittent energy supply created by wind and solar. These reliable generators can fill the energy void quickly, often capable of black start dispatch at a low cost, with a flexible buildout.

Modern gas turbines can address periods of peak demand or unexpected outages as well. This technology has seen dramatic advancement in the last decade, allowing turbines to ramp up to full load in a mere 10 minutes. During a severe outage, this nearly immediate dispatchable energy is essential to the health and safety of residents.

Whatever the technology or approach that assists the transition from fossil fuels to increased wind and solar energy, it is essential that states and utilities have a plan. Reliability cannot be sacrificed along the way. For overall resiliency, grid operators should assess their critical loads and, at minimum, develop detailed plans to meet those critical loads.

In the case of California’s blackouts, the state was unable to rely on power imports to meet the peak demand because it was needed elsewhere. Since these rolling blackouts, California state officials have granted a three-year extension on the closure of natural gas plants to be able to deliver reliable, resilient electricity no matter what.

California’s shortfalls serve as a warning to other states on the implications for 100% carbon-free energy goals and the significant infrastructure shift that is required. Without close attention to the integrity and reliability of the grid, gaps like these will become increasingly more challenging to bridge.


As the power generation mix eases toward renewables, fast-acting resources that can be dispatched quickly are essential. See why firming solar and batteries with natural gas might be the right generation mix for your fleet.

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George Ransom is a business development manager at Burns & McDonnell, focused on the electric utility and power market sectors. He specializes in black start services and is experienced in the design of electrical systems, the development of equipment specifications, engineer-procure-construct proposal estimating and the preparation of construction contracts.