California ISO command center Photo by: California ISO

Managing California's Electrical Grid is No Small Task

by / February 3, 2015

Californians rank pretty low in energy consumption.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the state ranks 49th -- it consumed 200 million BTUs in 2012, which may sounds like a lot (one BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1° Fahrenheit), but it's minimal compared to the nation's No. 1 consumer: Wyoming used 949 million BTUs in the same year.

The reasons for that lower consumption, according to the EIA, are due in part to the state's mild climate and energy efficiency programs.

But the electricity Californians use must be managed and corralled, so to speak, and that's where the California Independent System Operator (ISO) comes in. The ISO is the state's impartial grid operator; it opens access to the wholesale power market, and is designed to diversify resources and lower prices.

Though not all electricity runs through the ISO, as government-run utilities operate on their own, the majority of it does -- 80 percent, to be exact. Every day, 27,000 market transactions -- that account for roughly 600,000 megawatt hours -- take place at the ISO.

And all that activity is monitored in the control room, shown above, where analysts and engineers work in five-minute increments, forecasting demand, accounting for operating reserves and dispatching power.

In the control room, an 80-foot video wall displays such data as open and closed transmission circuits, the energy the ISO has and where it's going, and incoming renewable energy. "We don't see areas or geography," said Steven Greenlee, the ISO's senior public information officer, "we see groups of electrical-related transmissions."

So just because a resident lives near wind turbines or a power plant doesn't necessarily mean that's where his electricity is coming from. The ISO is like a giant pool of electricity with streams constantly flowing in and out, and operators must keep that flow in balance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.