Blackouts possible at height of California’s heat wave Tuesday as grid struggles with record usage

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Rolling blackouts postponed the evening of Labor Day, managers of California’s beleaguered power grid announced — but later canceled — an energy emergency alert on Monday.

But the blackout still remained a possibility on Tuesday, when workers were returning to their offices and electricity demand was at an all-time high.

The independent system operator running the electricity grid declared a Stage 2 emergency alert from 6:30 p.m. Monday, a sign that supplies were becoming increasingly tight as temperatures rose to 110 degrees and beyond.

Alert ended at 9 pm

The blackout – for the first time in two years – would probably have come if ISO had to declare a Stage 3 alert.

Complicating matters, ISO on Monday evening declared a “transmission emergency” for Northern California, saying it needed “overload relief in the Palermo area” of Butte County.

“We have now entered the most intense phase of this heat wave,” ISO President and CEO Elliot Mainzer said earlier in the day. “The likelihood of a rotating outage is greatly increased.”

Mainzer said the grid was “looking at an energy shortfall of 2,000 to 4,000 megawatts, which is 10% of normal electricity demand.” With this, about 30 lakh families can be offline.

The Flex Alert – a call for voluntary protection for the sixth straight evening – was in effect for an hour longer than usual, from 4 to 10 p.m., outlining increasingly worsening conditions on the grid as temperatures rise in parts of inland California. was expected. 110 degrees or more.

Mainzer said Californians have rallied during the heat wave, slashing their consumption by nearly 1,000 megawatts on Saturday and Sunday nights — enough electricity for more than 750,000 homes.

But to meet Labor Day, he said conservation efforts would have to be doubled or tripled.

Around noon, the power consumption was expected to be maximum 48,961 MW on Monday evening. But at 6 p.m. it had already risen above a few megawatts in that prediction.

Tuesday’s situation was getting worse: peak demand of 51,144 megawatts, breaking a 16-year-old record for energy use in California.

“We’re on a very low margin,” said Shiv Gunda, deputy chairman of the California Energy Commission.

The state scrambled to keep the lights on. Last year a small fleet of new gas-powered power generators were commissioned for the first time in Roseville and Yuba City, authorized by the state and operated by the Department of Water Resources. They generated enough electricity for about 120,000 homes.

Additionally, Governor Gavin Newsom’s emergency order last week enables industrial businesses and others to fire backup generators that would otherwise be prohibited by air-pollution regulations, Gund said. “Many of our participants can turn on their (generators) and take the load off the grid,” he said.

Some customers with so-called interruptible rates – which offer discounts but leave them vulnerable to decreased energy availability as supply dwindles – can be taken offline.

Meanwhile, Newsom employees were calling on large commercial and industrial firms, asking them to reduce their use to avoid the blackout, said Newsom spokeswoman Erin Mellon.

“Incorrectly called ‘dialing for MW,'” she said.

Utilities like SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, can also help, which isn’t part of ISO’s grid network and doesn’t necessarily lead to a blackout if it does. Mainzer said different utilities outside the ISO system usually share power with each other in times of crisis.

“There is a hope among utilities,” Mainzer said. “They’ve been working together for years.”

SMUD’s hands were full on Monday with record power demand. Whether it will be able to share power with ISO’s statewide system “will have to be a gametime decision,” said SMUD spokeswoman Lindsey Vanlaningham. “If we have extra, we will.”

Like the state, SMUD was asking residents of Sacramento to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees on Monday evening to save electricity. VanLaningham said Monday evening it appeared SMUD would survive a rolling outage of its own.

Mark Rothleder, ISO’s Chief Operating Officer, said Californians have done an admirable job so far in responding to Flex Alert; The number of megawatts saved has actually increased as the heat wave continues. Another saving grace in the Pacific Northwest has been comparatively mild weather, helping that region export more electricity to California.

But the grid has been hit hard. Rothleder said three gas-fired power plants shut down and are still struggling to regain full power, wiping out about 1,000 megawatts in total. Drought has severely reduced hydroelectricity supply all summer. All told, as of Monday morning, 7,735 megawatts of power had been commissioned, according to ISO data.

The biggest shortfall on the power grid is expected on Tuesday, when temperatures in the Sacramento Valley could reach 115 degrees and power demand could hit a system record. “Our goal is to make sure we don’t reach that number,” Mainzer said.

Current record: 50,270 MW of electricity consumed on 24 July 2006. The state avoided power outages that day, but California’s electricity portfolio has changed significantly over the past 15 years, creating new areas of vulnerability.

In particular, California’s growing reliance on solar power and other renewable sources has made the grid more susceptible to evening blackouts, when solar panels go dark but the weather remains warm. The state witnessed two consecutive night blackouts in August 2020 and almost repeated during the July 2021 heat wave.

Since then the state has been able to bring in more than 8,000 MW of capacity, including more than 2,000 MW of battery storage – a system for marshalling excess electricity generated from rooftop solar panels and other sources – Gunda said.

“Imagine where we would be if we hadn’t done the work we’ve done in the last two years,” said Newsom spokeswoman Mellon.

During the flex alert, Californians are urged to prematurely cool their homes and then raise the thermostat to 78 degrees. They are also told to avoid using heavy equipment.

“We know it’s going to be a long haul,” Mainzer said, “and it’s going to be even harder.”

Temperatures in the capital region are expected to remain above 100 degrees for most of the week after the National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning until Thursday night.

In addition, air quality managers issued a fourth Spare the Air Alert of the year for Monday, as heat is expected to keep ozone levels unhealthy for vulnerable groups. Before the heat wave, the region had just one alert day in 2022.

This story was originally published 5 September 2022 at 10:14 am.

Stories about the Sacramento Bee

Del Kasler covers the complex world of climate change, the environment, economics and California’s waters. He has also covered major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee from the Des Moines Register in 1996 and graduated from Northwestern University.

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