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California energy officials warn of potential summer blackouts

Article Republished By Javier Troconis

California energy officials said Friday that an extremely hot summer, combined with constrained supplies, could lead to a repeat of 2020 statewide electricity outages.

“If all those things were to occur, there is real potential for potential outages and we have to be prepared for that,” said Mark Rothleder chief operating officer for the California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that manages the electric grid for about 80 percent of the state.

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Working on a traditional 1-in-10 forecast, state officials said the electric system could find itself 1,700 megawatts short of needed capacity in the coming months. Using rough calculations by the California Energy Commission, 1,700 megawatts is enough to power about 1.3 million homes.

And in the event of extreme weather and wildfires, the shortfall could reach between 4,000 megawatts and 5,000 megawatts.

For perspective, the peak demand on the California ISO grid in August hovers around 43,000 megawatts. The all-time record is 50,270 megawatts, set on July 24, 2006.

“In general, we do have enough power to supply the system, but we have to have enough power for any event that might hit us,” said Alice Reynolds, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, known as the CPUC for short.

In the aftermath of the August 2020 outages that ran for two consecutive days and led to some areas losing power for up to 2 1/2 hours, the CPUC directed the state’s power companies and electricity providers to procure 11,500 megawatts of capacity since 2021. By the end of this summer, the CPUC expects to have about 4,500 megawatts of battery storage at the ready, up from just 200 megawatts 2 1/2 years ago.

“We are in a better position than we were last year, just with the tools we have with the additional supply we have,” Reynolds said during a webinar with reporters, “but we also know that we may see conditions that are worse than last year and so we have to be prepared.”

State officials blamed a combination of things for the potential shortfall, including persistently hot and dry weather.

Drought conditions that have parched most of California resulted in significantly lower snowpack in the Sierra this past winter, which will lead to reductions in generation from hydroelectric power plants across the state.
The state’s grid operator normally imports about one-quarter of its power needs from neighboring states. But, as was the case in 2020, when heat waves blanketed the West, those states keep those megawatts for themselves and imports to California dry up.

Last summer, the state’s grid was pushed to its limits after a major transmission line in the Pacific Northwest went out of service due to a massive fire in Oregon, interrupting electricity deliveries to California.

Wildfires can also reduce solar generation to the grid, with smoke blocking panels from producing the amounts they normally would if skies were clear.

“As the heat goes up, it is really hard to anticipate the amount of outages we might find ourselves with,” said Siva Gunda, vice chair of the California Energy Commission.

Despite the added procurements, officials said a clogged supply chain related to the lingering economic effects of the pandemic and concerns about potential tariffs on imported solar panels has led to more problems.

“Supply chain challenges have really interrupted our ability to get new resources, and to count on those resources coming online as expected,” Reynolds said.

The U.S. Commerce Department is considering a petition by a solar panel maker in San Jose, accusing manufacturers in China of circumventing U.S tariffs by making panels in Southeast Asian countries. The complaint has slowed imports, irritating some U.S. utilities and politicians who say the delays are keeping solar projects from being completed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo last week, saying the tariff inquiry has bottled up at least 4,350 megawatts of solar-plus-storage projects.

Friday’s webinar came a little more than a week after Newsom raised the possibility of California keeping its last remaining nuclear power plant in operation — at least for a few years — to help shore up grid reliability.

The 2,280-megawatt Diablo Canyon Power Plant is scheduled to shut down in 2024 and 2025 but Newsom told the Los Angeles Times editorial board that California should consider applying for a share of a $6 billion federal funding program aimed at keeping at-risk nuclear plants from closing.

“We would be remiss not to put that on the table as an option,” Newsom said.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the operator at Diablo Canyon, has yet to pledge whether the utility will turn in a funding application to the U.S. Department of Energy by the May 19 deadline.

Ana Matosantos, cabinet secretary in the governor’s office, did not provide any update Friday, other than to say, “We’re looking at all options associated with those planned retirements” and there will be “more come in the coming days.”

The grid control center at the California Independent System Operator in Folsom.

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

In recent years, the biggest challenge facing California grid managers is what’s called “net peak demand” — typically between 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer.

California produces a lot of solar power during the day but when the sun goes down, solar production disappears. Plus, on some of the hottest days of the year, wind production also dips.

Net peak occurs as the sun sets. When temperatures soar, consumers crank up their air conditioning, increasing demand on the system. When it’s really hot, customers keep the AC on for an hour or two after it gets dark — just as solar production vanishes.

Grid operators then have to replace the lost megawatts with other sources of power to keep the electrical system balanced — and it has to be done in real time. If a shortage threatens the system’s contingency reserves, the CAISO issues a Stage 3 Emergency, instructing utilities to shed load until the margins are restored.

“Conditions are getting tighter in the West,” Rothleder said.

At the same time, California policymakers have committed to deriving 100 percent of its electricity from renewable or carbon-free energy sources by 2045, or sooner.

The potential for summer outages will likely generate criticism from some skeptics of California’s approach, who say it is too reliant on wind and solar sources that are intermittent — that is, wind production lags when breezes don’t blow and solar production disappears at night.

But Karen Douglas, Newsom’s senior energy advisor, said the administration is not turning back.

“California will continue to lead the fight against climate change and will continue to take the necessary actions to ensure energy reliability during this clean energy transition,” she said.

During the webinar, Reynolds of the CPUC delivered sobering news about utility rates.

An analysis conducted by the CPUC in 2021 estimated double-digit increases in monthly bills for average residential customers across the state by 2030. Reynolds said a new estimate moved those predictions up five years — to 2025.

In the case of San Diego Gas & Electric customers, the CPUC estimates the average bill will rise from $171 per month today to $213 per month in 2025. PG&E customers can expect to see an increase from $165 to $211 per month. For Southern California Edison customers, the analysis predicts monthly bills going up from $150 to $168.

The key drivers include higher natural gas prices, increased transmission costs and spending to reduce the threat of wildfires in the investor-owned utilities’ service territories.

“We’re seeing rate increases at higher rates than we saw even last year when we did that analysis,” Reynolds said.

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