NEWS Q&A: California’s new electricity-​​blackout challenge

Q&A: California’s new electricity-​​blackout challenge


FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, file photo, electrical grid transmission towers are seen in Pasadena, Calif. As if the pandemic and recession weren’t bad enough, millions of Californians have been facing the recurring threats of abrupt blackouts during a heat wave in the nation’s most populous state. Photo: John Antczak, AP / Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — As if the pan­demic and eco­nomic reces­sion weren’t bad enough, mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans now face recur­ring threats of abrupt black­outs dur­ing a heat wave in the nation’s most pop­u­lous state.

California’s Inde­pen­dent Sys­tem Oper­a­tor, a non­profit agency that man­ages the state’s power sup­ply, ordered util­i­ties to impose tem­po­rary black­outs for the first time in 19 years last Fri­day and did so again Sat­ur­day, pulling the plug on hun­dreds of thou­sands of cus­tomers for one to two hours. The specter of so-​​called “rolling out­ages” have loomed as a pos­si­bil­ity every day since, and were nar­rowly averted Mon­day evening after “stun­ning” con­ser­va­tion efforts, accord­ing to ISO pres­i­dent Steve Berberich.

Con­ser­va­tion helped avoid threat­ened out­ages again Tues­day and may be needed again Wednes­day to keep the power run­ning. Tem­per­a­tures are finally sup­posed to ease Thurs­day, but more out­ages could still loom if things heat up as much as some fore­casts suggest.

The black­outs seemed to catch gov­ern­ment offi­cials off guard, despite an ISO warn­ing in Jan­u­ary that the state could run low on power over the sum­mer if sev­eral west­ern states were to expe­ri­ence extreme heat at the same time — which indeed hap­pened sev­eral days ago.

This has been a rude awak­en­ing for Cal­i­for­nia,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia civil and envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor who has stud­ied the state’s power supply.

The out­ages prompted Gov. Gavin New­som, a Demo­c­rat, to order an inves­ti­ga­tion into how the state’s energy sup­ply failed to keep up with demand. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump also weighed in with a Tues­day tweet blam­ing the state’s Democ­rats for the mess.

Here’s a look at California’s lat­est challenge.

Q: Cal­i­for­nia had rolling black­outs two decades ago because of power short­ages. Why hasn’t it learned from past mistakes?

Cir­cum­stances were very dif­fer­ent in 2000–2001. Back then, a recent dereg­u­la­tion of the state power mar­ket was going hor­ri­bly awry as energy traders manip­u­lated energy sup­plies to gouge util­i­ties. Black­out fall­out even­tu­ally led vot­ers to oust then-​​Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election.

These days, Cal­i­for­nia is try­ing to adapt to envi­ron­men­tal man­dates that have shut down natural-​​gas power plants in favor of solar and wind energy. In addi­tion, the San Onofre nuclear power plant in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia shut down in 2013 for safety rea­sons. Nearby west­ern states have also been phas­ing out coal-​​burning plants, reduc­ing other energy sup­plies avail­able for Cal­i­for­nia to import.

Renew­able energy reduces pol­lu­tion, but it can run short if winds die down or demand surges after sun­down. As much as 25% of California’s power sup­ply comes from solar sources. Both came to pass last Fri­day and Sat­ur­day as tem­per­a­tures stayed high into the evening, push­ing up air-​​conditioning demand for electricity.

Energy short­ages used to be the most severe around 4:30 p.m. on hot sum­mer days, but are now occur­ring after 7 p.m., the ISO says.

Oth­ers believe he prob­lem has more to do with Cal­i­for­nia fail­ing to man­age and prop­erly store power gen­er­ated from renew­able sources. “There is a cer­tain level of mis­in­for­ma­tion going on out there,” said Daniel Kam­men, a pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley.

Q: This isn’t California’s first recent heat wave. What’s different?

The state’s high­est recorded demand for elec­tric­ity occurred in August 2006 when usage peaked at 50,270 megawatts, accord­ing to the ISO. No black­outs were nec­es­sary. But at the time, natural-​​gas plants were still pro­duc­ing about 7,000 megawatts of elec­tric­ity that is longer avail­able, said Sev­erin Boren­stein, an ISO board mem­ber who is also a pro­fes­sor of busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion and pub­lic pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia. Berkeley.

A Sep­tem­ber 2017 heat wave caused demand to spike to 50,140 megawatts, the ISO said Tues­day. But power imported from other west­ern states that weren’t as hot helped save the day.

The recent short­ages would have likely been even worse but for pan­demic restric­tions that closed many large offices. By some esti­mates, the pan­demic so far has reduced over­all elec­tric­ity demand in Cal­i­for­nia and other parts of the coun­try by 8% to 10%.

Q: Doesn’t Cal­i­for­nia also face black­outs intended to pre­vent wildfires?

Yes, par­tic­u­larly in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Such black­outs are likely to be more severe than what the state has just expe­ri­enced. Some of the more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple affected by fire-​​fighting out­ages last fall were left with­out elec­tric­ity for sev­eral days, not just an hour or two.

It’s highly unlikely that the ISO would order rolling out­ages at the same time as a fire-​​prevention black­out, as demand will auto­mat­i­cally have already been reduced, Boren­stein said.

Q: How can Cal­i­for­nia avoid future rolling blackouts?

Invest­ments in elec­tric­ity stor­age and dis­tri­b­u­tion would do the trick, Kam­men said. But those could be expen­sive, and even harder to bud­get for at a time when the state faces huge deficits amid the pandemic-​​related slowdown.

Cal­i­for­nia also may have to con­sider extend­ing the life­time of its last nuclear power plant in Dia­blo Canyon. The plant is cur­rently sched­uled to close by the end of 2025, and keep­ing it open would likely face staunch resis­tance from envi­ron­men­tal­ists and politicians.

Con­ser­va­tion might be an eas­ier and quicker option. Cal­i­for­ni­ans have con­served effec­tively in the past, most recently in a water-​​saving cam­paign dur­ing a pro­longed drought. But no one knows if home­own­ers will agree to turn up ther­mostats a few degrees to pre­vent blackouts.

Util­i­ties, how­ever, can encour­age such behav­ior. Boren­stein sug­gests allow­ing util­i­ties to charge higher rates from 4 to 9 p.m. in exchange for lower prices at other hours as part of a vol­un­tary program.

What­ever mea­sures the state takes may only be the first step. “Look­ing ahead, who knows what to expect,” Boren­stein said. “All we know is the cli­mate is changing.”

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