California experiences first rotating power outages in 19 years. What went wrong?

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Rotating power outages in California are back for the first time in nearly 20 years. - Gary Robbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

The bad old days — and nights — of rotating power outages in California are back for the first time in nearly 20 years. And they could be back in a big way for the next few days.

But unlike 2001 when market manipulation from rogue entities like Enron were at the root of rolling blackouts, grid operators blame these outages on a combination of reasons that include finding sources to back up energy sources that compose the current grid in the state and a heatwave that not only affected all of California but its neighboring states as well.

“We are scouring every corner of our world to find additional load reductions and generation,” said Steve Berberich, the CEO of the California Independent System Operator, known as CAISO for short. The scale of the outages statewide could be in the millions, Berberich acknowledged.

“We have a perfect storm going on right here,” Berberich said during an emergency meeting of CAISO’s board of governors Monday. “Usually, we have enough capacity in California, if you count what we get in California and what we get in the region. What we have is a situation where the entire region is more than hot, it’s extremely hot … We can’t get the energy that we would normally get from out of state.”

That means states like Washington and Arizona aren’t sending electrons to California because they need that power to service their own customers. Roughly 25% of California’s power comes from imports from its neighbors. The scorching weather is reminiscent of 2006, when from July 16-26 a “heat storm” accounted for 131 heat-related deaths in the state and drove energy demand to record levels.

“People often wonder how we made it through the 2006 heat storm and not this one,” Berberich said. “It’s quite simple. There was a lot more generating capacity on the system in 2006 than 2020.”

So what happened?

To run a power grid, it’s not just a matter of having sufficient sources in place — system operators have to balance supply and demand instantaneously, generating every kilowatt that is demanded by customers who expect their lighting/heating/air conditioning to come on the moment they flip a switch.

ISO officials said they knew the heatwave was coming, made adjustments and believed there would be adequate supply to keep the electricity flowing without interruption.

But cloudy conditions reduced solar generation produced across the state and breezes lagged, which dropped production from wind farms.

On Friday, ISO officials said a 750-megawatt unit was already offline and then a 500-megawatt generator went down. Then on Saturday, a 470-megawatt power plant and 1,000 megawatts of wind power dropped out of service.

“Our fleet was maxed out,” said John Phipps, CAISO director of real-time operations.

The grid operators then instructed utilities to implement rotating outages, as part of their duty to manage the grid. While the CAISO tells the power companies to shed load if needed, it is up to the individual utility to assign which areas in its service territory will be cut off.

“The combination of a few hundred megawatts of solar coming off and a unit tripping off … when you’re on the ragged edge, then it shoves you over the edge,” said Scott Miller, executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum, a Sacramento-based organization whose 80-plus members buy and sell power.

Newsom angry

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order Monday aimed at trying to free up additional energy capacity. The order came just one day after Newsom issued an emergency proclamation allowing energy users and power companies to employ backup energy sources during peak periods.

“These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom said in a letter to the CAISO, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, known as the CPUC for short.

“This cannot stand,” Newsom went on to say. “California residents and businesses deserve better from their government.”

The 2001 rolling blackouts led to the recall and ouster of then-Gov. Gray Davis.

The renewables connection

California boasts about the high percentage of renewable sources it has on its grid — more than 32% of in-state generation in 2018 came from clean energy sources.

But while solar production is robust during the day, it does not generate at night after the sun goes down and wind farms do not produce power when breezes list. The intermittent nature of such sources can strain the grid during the evening hours when customers run their air conditioners and appliances. That’s why “time of use” rate plans by utilities like SDG&E charge customers higher prices during hours such as 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

And that’s why the current Flex Alert issued by the CAISO is in effect from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. through Wednesday.

Berberich apologized for having to order the rotating power outages. “We knew it would be a close call on Friday and Saturday evenings and thought we would be able to serve all load,” he said. “We own that and are sorry we didn’t do more.”

But Berberich also called out the CPUC, saying that CAISO had repeatedly warned the commission that a shortfall in capacity was coming and the “resource adequacy” program that ensures enough power is in the system at all times needs to be shored up.

“That was rebuffed,” Berberich said. “And here we are, facing diminished imports” from other states.

The CPUC responded by saying it has “already made rule changes and modifications to the forecasting to adjust for changes in imported electricity that largely go into effect in 2021,” said commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.

“As the Governor stated, this is a shared responsibility, and we are working with our sister agencies to better understand why this occurred,” Prosper said in an email to the Union-Tribune. “Our current focus is the public’s safety and to emphasize the importance of energy conservation to reduce the strain on electric supply.”

For some, the outages and energy shortfalls bring up the question about whether California is moving too quickly to shut down “baseload” fossil fuel energy sources such as natural gas plants that can generate electricity around the clock and fill in the gaps when needed.

“When you get to when solar is leaving at night, that’s one of the more particularly difficult times for us to serve load,” Berberich said. “I don’t know if you need to serve that load with a thermal (such as natural gas) plant but I do think you do need to consider how you will serve that load before you retire that thermal plant. And I think that’s probably the bigger issue to be considered is, making sure we have adequate power when plants are retired.”

During the board of governors meeting, two callers during the public comment period asked about reversing course on the closure of the Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the last remaining nuclear facility in the state that is slated to begin closure in 2024.

Diablo Canyon’s 2,200 megawatts of electricity accounted for 9.38% of in-state generation in 2018.

But David Olsen of the board of governors said it’s very difficult for nuclear power to ramp up and down to adjust for changes in the grid. “Inflexible nuclear is a very bad partner for a low-carbon, very flexible grid with lots of wind and solar generation,” Olsen said.

Natural gas is the single largest source of in-state generation (46.5 percent) but it is a fossil fuel and California has set a target of deriving 100% of its electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2045.

Another member of the board of governors, Severin Borenstein, said he doesn’t think it’s the CAISO’s job to determine what specific energy sources should be used, but added, “There’s no question that more solar is not going to replace 7 p.m. energy generation after the sun has gone down (but) solar plus (battery) storage could.”

Board of governors member Mary Leslie was direct.

“We’re moving forward with a low-carbon grid and I think the direction is really clear and we’re not going back,” Leslie said. “We’re not going backwards. We’re going to move forward.”

But Gary Ackerman, a utilities consultant and former executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum, said more natural gas plants should be built.

“We’re going to have to get smart about electricity,” Ackerman said. “One hundred% renewable energy is just a fiction and it’s time to get that straightened out.”

In the meantime, meteorologists see no quick end to the heatwave. While the National Weather Service expects the heat to peak on Tuesday, forecasters say temperatures will remain unusually hot until next Monday. The service says the overnight temperature will not drop below 70 until next Monday.

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