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With summer’s heat approaching, California’s plan for avoiding a repeat of last year’s blackouts hinges on a humble savior – the battery.

Giant versions of the same technology that powers smart phones and cars are being plugged into the state’s electrical grid at breakneck speed, with California set to add more battery capacity this year than all of China, according to BloombergNEF.

It will be the biggest test yet of whether batteries are reliable enough to sustain a grid largely powered by renewables. Last year, when the worst heat wave in a generation taxed California’s power system and plunged millions into darkness in the first rolling blackouts since the Enron crisis, many blamed the state’s aggressive clean-energy push and its reliance on solar power. Should a heat wave strike again this summer, it will be up to batteries save the day.

“This is going to be the preview summer for batteries in California, and we want to make sure this initial chapter is as successful as possible,’’ said Elliot Mainzer, chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator, which runs the grid across most of the state.

By this August, the state will have 1,700 megawatts of new battery capacity — enough to power 1.3 million homes and, in theory, avert a grid emergency on the scale of last year’s.

But will batteries prevent blackouts? So far, they’ve been credited with helping prevent outages elsewhere, most notably in Australia where Tesla and France’s Neoen SA have built a 150-megawatt lithium-ion installation. That bodes well for California, where the buildout in combination with other measures should give the state enough of a cushion to prevent blackouts this summer, according to Kit Konolige, [senior analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.]

[David R Baker]

More: California to test whether big batteries can stop summer blackouts

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