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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