California avoids blackouts as energy consumption sets record

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With temperatures soaring and electricity supplies dwindling, California’s power grid teetered on the brink of blackouts for several hours Tuesday night before conditions improved and grid officials said that the crisis was over.

After avoiding blackouts on Monday night, the independent system operator was struggling to fortify the grid. It declared a stage 3 “energy emergency alert” just before 5.30pm, a sign that the first power cuts since 2020 could occur at any time. The organization said on Twitter that the outages were “highly possible”.

There were conflicting reports of outages beginning in parts of Northern California about an hour later. ABC10 reported power outages in parts of Lodi, and municipal utilities in Healdsburg and Alameda posted on social media that they had been ordered by the state’s grid manager to begin cutting customers. The three cities are part of a joint authority called the Northern California Power Agency, based in Roseville.

But spokeswoman Anne Gonzales of the Independent System Operator, which runs the network, said the ISO had not imposed any power cuts, and the organization announced on Twitter that its stage 3 emergency is over. was over at 8 p.m. without rotating interruptions.

Late Tuesday, the City of Lodi said on its Facebook page that a “miscommunication” between the NCPA and ISO caused the city to offload “by mistake.” The city had shut off nearly 1,400 customers for less than an hour, removing about 5.5 megawatts of load from the system.

Meanwhile, SMUD issued its own warning to the Sacramento area that power outages could hit the area for the first time in 20 years, and urged customers to raise their thermostats to 82 degrees by late post- midday. But as of 8:30 p.m. there were still no power outages in the area, other than those caused by equipment malfunctions.

“Thanks to our customers, we avoided rotating outages today,” said SMUD spokeswoman Lindsay Vanlaningham.

For several hours, it appeared that power outages would be inevitable. The ISO said Stage 3 emergencies are just “one stage away from commanding rotating blackouts”.

But somehow the grid held on. The state’s Office of Emergency Services issued a final call for conservation, sending text alerts to Californians’ phones saying, “Power outages can occur if you don’t act.” About an hour later, Cal OES said the texts resulted in “an immediate and significant drop in power consumption.”

The ISO emergency was declared around the time electricity demand peaked at 52,061 megawatts, breaking the record of 50,270 consumed in July 2006.

It was also hundreds of megawatts more than ISO officials had predicted a day earlier for Tuesday’s outlook – a sign that the record heat wave and grid conditions were deteriorating, apparently from hour by hour. Temperatures in parts of the Sacramento Valley are expected to hit 118 degrees Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

“We’re heading into the worst part of this heat wave,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a video released Tuesday morning. “The risk of breakdowns is real and it is immediate.” He then signed an executive order easing air pollution restrictions on various types of power plants and standby generators.

SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, is not part of the ISO system and would not be affected by state rollout outages. But SMUD had its own supply issues and warned customers they had to hold on or risk outages.

“Our predicted peak is higher than what we have. If customers don’t hold, we may be forced to do rolling stops, which we haven’t done in 20 years. We need SMUD customers to hold between 4 and 9 p.m. And of course we are doing everything we can on our side,” VanLaningham said earlier today.

SMUD: turn the thermostats to 82

SMUD asked customers to cool their homes early — then raise thermostats to 82 degrees, four degrees higher than what the state was seeking, in another sign of how difficult the evening was.

“SMUD will exhaust all avenues before the rotating blackouts are called,” the utility said, including buying power in the open market. The utility can also deploy its “Air Conditioning Load Management Program,” which gives it the ability to turn off the air conditioning to customers who have signed up for the program. They get bill credits in return.

“That would be the last step before the rotating breakdowns,” VanLaningham said.

The ISO issued a Flex Alert for the seventh consecutive evening, calling on Californians to reduce their energy use between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. to avoid power outages. This includes turning thermostats up to 78 degrees and turning off heavy appliances such as dishwashers.

Even with the voluntary conservation, it was clear the grid was going to be pushed to the limit – the organization said it faced “supply shortfalls” of up to 3,400 megawatts as of Tuesday night. That would be enough electricity to power more than 2.5 million homes.

Adding to ISO’s problems: More than 8,700 megawatts of electricity were unavailable on the grid Tuesday morning due to various plant outages, according to ISO data. That was about 1,000 more megawatts lost than a day earlier.

“We have now entered the most intense phase of this heat wave,” ISO Director General Elliot Mainzer said on Monday.

The ISO called a Stage 2 emergency on Monday evening – an indication that power outages were increasingly likely – but the alert expired three hours later as conditions improved.

The state pulled out all the stops to try to avoid a repeat of the two nights of blackouts that hit California in August 2020, when a total of about 800,000 homes and businesses suffered power outages. lasting from 15 minutes to more than two hours.

State office building thermostats in Sacramento were ordered up to 78 degrees at 4 p.m. Tuesday — and 85 degrees an hour later.

Despite Newsom and the Legislature’s resolve to fight climate change and eliminate carbon emissions, the state started up a new fleet of state-owned gas-fired electric generators for the first time on Monday. in Roseville and Yuba City. An executive order signed by Newsom last week allows commercial businesses to operate standby generators that would normally be prohibited due to air pollution regulations. The governor’s top aides were “seeking megawatts” – a frantic push to persuade big business to reduce their electricity use.

Power cuts rotated from one customer block to another, usually lasting an hour or two. They would affect member utilities of the ISO network, including PG&E Corp., Southern California Edison and other major utilities.

Mainzer said Californians have done a great job reducing their energy use over the past week, but more is needed as scorching temperatures will remain in place for most of this week.

“We know it’s been a long time,” Mainzer said, “and it’s going to get even harder.”

This story was originally published September 6, 2022 10:36 a.m.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, the economy and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major corporate stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.

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