As California struggles to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, wilting heat and wildfires, it’s facing another dangerous crisis: blackouts.
As temperatures broke records across the state, California energy officials announced the first rolling blackouts in the state since 2001 and warned that the state was bracing for what could be the largest power outage it has ever seen, likely on Monday.
When asked about the number of Californians who will be impacted and how it ranks historically, the President/CEO of the Independent Service Operator — the nonprofit that operates the state’s power grid — said he wasn’t entirely sure.
“I can’t speak to historical comparisons,” Steve Berberich said. “I wasn’t here during the energy crisis.”
When pressed by a reporter who had run the numbers and estimated that 3.3 million Californians will be impacted, Berberich assented that his calculations were “probably fairly accurate.”
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The San Jose Mercury News estimates power outages impacted 1.5 million people in 2001. Given that number, 3.3 million people without power would be at least twice as large.
ISO officials said they were shutting down power to residents to prevent events of an even greater magnitude.
“We avoid demand exceeding supply to ensure there’s not a widespread system collapse,” said ISO Market Policy and Performance VP Mark Rothleder.
On Monday, officials said they expect blackouts to begin about 4 p.m. and extend through at least 10 p.m. in two-hour blocks for each affected area.
A big problem is a shortage of power that could be imported from utilities in neighboring states. California has been able to bridge the gaps in previous heatwaves because it could bring in power. This time, though, “we are facing diminished imports because the West is heating up,” said Berberich.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state was using “all the tools in the tool kit” to meet demand. “We are likely to fall short,” he said, as oppressive temperatures stress the state’s energy system that serves 5 million households and businesses.
The National Weather Service warned of potentially record-breaking heat in the L.A. area on Monday and Tuesday.
Newsom noted that temperatures in Death Valley reached 130 degrees Sunday, a peak not hit since at least a century-plus, according to the National Weather Service. As a point of reference, the hottest temperature ever officially recorded on Earth was 134 degrees, also in Death Valley, in 1913. And that mark has been disputed for decades.
Newsom added that “rather extraordinary weather conditions” also have put firefighters under enormous pressure as they battle wildfires across the state.
Newsom pointed to California’s shift to renewable resources as part of the reason for the supply shortage. Shutting down polluting gas power plants has created gaps in the state’s energy supply, he said.
While the state remains committed to a greener future, Newsom said, “We cannot sacrifice reliability” and promised that officials would be “much more aggressive … in making sure that is the case.”
Big power users are being allowed to shift to backup sources and stored energy that is typically restricted as state officials work to urgently deploy more resources systemwide, according to the governor.
A statewide Flex Alert calling for residents to voluntarily conserve electricity remains in effect through Wednesday. Officials also are urging businesses statewide to restrict their usage. In some cases, the state is asking business owners to support outreach to their customers about conserving energy. Newsom named Telsa, a major manufacturer of electric vehicles, as one of the businesses working closely with the state.
The California ISO issued the Flex Alert on Sunday, saying there is insufficient energy to meet high consumer demand during the record-breaking heatwave. To minimize the need for controlled outages, residents were asked to use air conditioning early in the day and set
thermostats at 78 in the afternoon and evening hours, while avoiding the use of major appliances between the hours of 3 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The alert followed blackouts Friday and Saturday that Newsom said came without warning.
The governor on Sunday convened an all-hands meeting with California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and senior administration officials and called the weekend service disruptions “unacceptable.”
Newsom announced Monday that he had signed an emergency proclamation to free up energy capacity.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said Friday’s rolling blackouts did not affect residents of the city. “We own our own power plants and transmission lines and had enough supply to meet demand + req’d reserve,” the department tweeted. “We encourage our customers to conserve to help state grid and reduce strain on system.”
We can all do our part to conserve energy and help prevent service interruptions during California’s heatwave. ☀️
🌡️ Set your A/C at 78° or higher
🚫 Avoid major appliance use
💡 Turn off unnecessary lights
Pre-cool your home at 72° overnight & in the morning. pic.twitter.com/zxiHxNdky9
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) August 17, 2020
On Saturday, high temperatures increased electricity demand while one power plant was down and wind power fell short, prompting a Stage 3 Electrical Emergency that lasted 20 minutes. It was called at 6:28 p.m., making rolling outages imminent or in progress, according to the California ISO.
No major outages were reported Monday by Southern California Edison, but peak power demand likely would trigger outages later in the day.
In a letter, the governor said the blackouts were called Friday and Saturday without notice and demanded an investigation.
“Residents, communities and other governmental organizations did not receive sufficient warning that these de-energizations could occur. Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians,” Newsom wrote.
“This cannot stand,” said Newsom at his midday press conference. “California residents and businesses deserve better from their government.”
Berberich said the ISO did a poor job of warning residents, utilities “and particularly the governor’s office” last weekend that blackouts were imminent.
“We own that, and we’re sorry,” he said.
Power providers say a lack of supply from sources outside the state contributed to the shortage, as other Western states struggled to meet their own demand during the heatwave.
During his midday Monday news conference, the governor promised the investigation would be swift and comprehensive.
The stakes are high for Newsom, who two weeks ago faced a failure of the state’s coronavirus data system; the 2001 blackouts were widely seen to have contributed to then-governor Gray Davis’s political demise. He was recalled by voters in 2003.
City News Service contributed to this report.