The official start of Fall this past week, marked by the Fall Equinox, seems to have crept up out of nowhere when we reflect on the record-shattering last few weeks of summer. Over 1,000 heat records in the American West were broken during the first week of September 2022. In California, a dangerously excessive heat wave lasted for a dozen days, placing unprecedented strain on the state’s electric grid, resulting in Flex Alerts being issued day after day. During that time, headlines warned of impending rolling blackouts—but they never came. On September 10, 2022, after the last Flex Alert was lifted, the California ISO (CAISO) credited the public, for doing their part to keep the lights on across the state.

“The #ISO is deeply grateful to the public, and all of our partners in #CA and the West for helping us maintain grid reliability through this historic heat ever. Tonight’s #FlexAlert has concluded.” (CAISO, @California_ISO, Twitter, September 10, 2022, 12:00 Midnight.)

California continues to increase its electrical grid capacity with new energy storage and distributed generation projects, including Vistra’s Moss Landing Battery Energy Storage Facility—currently the largest battery storage project in California; but increased storage alone will not provide the grid resiliency needed to withstand increasing extreme weather events and other impacts of the climate crisis.

In the face of these mounting challenges, the State has turned to its most abundant and adaptable resource: Californians. Some California residents have enrolled in Power Saver Rewards or other demand response (DR) programs through their utility or third-party DR providers, and those customers receive incentives for participating in DR events. But through energy messaging and more specifically, the Flex Alert marketing campaign, California calls on all the State’s residents to support grid stability by voluntarily reducing their electricity usage. Flex Alerts and the Statewide marketing campaign around them are part of a large, and growing suite of demand flexibility offerings designed to meet growing demand and renewable integration needs. Unlike in traditional demand response programs; however, residents are not typical program participants, as they never enrolled in a program, received technology to enable direct load control, or received financial compensation for reducing their energy use in response to Flex Alerts.

The success of these attempts to engage the public, known as marketing, evaluation, and outreach (ME&O) efforts, by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), hinges upon their ability to reach and engage residents. Opinion Dynamics, in partnership with the CPUC, has been conducting research on the effectiveness of the State’s energy messaging. In the process, we’ve encountered residents who are questioning their responsibility for reducing demand during times of high use. Examples of the types of questions the residential customers participating in our research are asking include:

  • Should residents be shouldering the responsibility, taking action, and responding to calls for voluntary energy conservation measures?
  • Why the grid isn’t able to handle the demand and who is responsible for grid instability?

These are legitimate questions, but unfortunately, there are no simple answers for the residential sector. Add in the commercial and industrial sectors it becomes even more complex. Everyone is responsible, although the extent of everyone’s individual responsibility and ability varies. Answers to questions about energy demand responsibility can feel inscrutable to the average residential consumer because energy consumption does not have equal impacts or benefits. Additionally, energy inequities exist and have the potential to be exacerbated in the transition to a cleaner energy economy if we do not acknowledge and address inequities, such as lack of access to clean energy sources and the disproportionate energy burdens of disadvantaged communities.

These questions and quandaries once left to ethicists, philosophers, and environmental justice scholars, are now faced by program managers, utilities, and the energy industry as a whole. The answers to who is responsible for grid stability and how to increase energy equity are multifaceted and multilayered, and correspondingly the solutions must be as well—including the responsibility and role of residential customers’ demand on the grid.

Admittedly, this research effort we are conducting at Opinion Dynamics focuses only on broad-based marketing to the residential sector—not large commercial and industrial businesses or typical residential demand response programs. But residential energy demand reduction is an important piece of the puzzle, and as a trained environmental psychologist I would argue it is interesting and rewarding to work within this space. I’m able to think about the collective action of individual Californian residents and collect data to understand if and how those actions made a difference. Just how impactful can residential voluntary reductions be on the grid when calls to action are disseminated through broad-based marketing and/or emergency messaging? Significantly, if the data from September 6, 2022, are any indication.

On September 6, 2022, CAISO issued a Flex Alert asking the public to voluntarily reduce electricity use from 4:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. This was the seventh day in a row that a Flex Alert had been issued during the heat wave. As shown in Figure 1, demand on the grid started to drop at 4:00 p.m. After only 15 minutes; however, demand started to creep up again—spiking to a record high shortly before 5:00 p.m. At 5:00 p.m., CAISO shared a reminder about the Flex Alert via social media and while demand start to decrease almost immediately, it plateaued soon after.

At 5:45 p.m., CAISO issued a news release announcing an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA3) via social media. An EEA3 means the grid “is unable to meet minimum contingency reserve requirements and [CAISO] has asked utilities to prepare for the possibility of rotating power outages.” (CAISO Energy Emergency Alert Fact Sheet).  Within ten minutes, grid demand took a nose dive and continued to decline over the late evening hours. Through collective action, in response to an emergency alert, that was preceded by Flex Alerts, California residents helped avert rotating power outages.

There is no question that the sudden reduction in demand helped California’s power grid stabilize and hold strong when peak demand spiked to an all-time high. But a single day of data in isolation, while compelling, could never tell the full story. Before drawing conclusions, we need more context. I want data—lots of quantitative and qualitative data to provide evidence that it makes a difference. And that’s exactly what we are collecting as part of our research with the CPUC.

Through innovative approaches to obtain and analyze data from multiple residential sources, we are working to uncover barriers and opportunities for taking energy conservation measures. Additionally, we are leveraging advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) consumption data to assess whether and to what extent voluntary calls for conservation made a difference in decreasing demand.

We can look at this consumption data for different sub-groups and compare; for example, do residents enrolled in DR programs, like Power Saver Rewards, decrease their consumption more than those residents who only receive Flex Alert Notifications? Does the incentive make a difference?

We can interview the community-based organizations that serve low-income and disadvantaged communities to gain their perspective on the needs of their constituents as it relates to energy use. We need multiple data sources and approaches to understand the full picture and opportunities for demand reduction in ways that do not perpetuate equity issues in energy but instead seek to address and rectify them.

We see our evaluation activities as playing an important part in this larger picture, which will allow us to provide recommendations on customer targeting and messaging to reach and motivate additional customers during the current and next messaging campaign cycle. At Opinion Dynamics, we’re enthusiastically collecting, cleaning, and analyzing data to track the effectiveness of the Flex Alert ME&O) campaign. Our research findings will be available to the public in 2023 and we look forward to sharing these learnings to help all Californians flex our response-ability to decrease demand on the grid.

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Stacia Dreyer: