NEWSOM ORDERS INVESTIGATION OF ROLLING BLACKOUTS; GRID OPERATOR BLAMES PUC

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SDG&E thanks customers for reducing power usage, averting need for outages yesterday, but brief outages are possible over next several days during heat wave

By Miriam Raftery

Photo: Creative Commons by SA-NC via Bing

August 18, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – As triple-digit heat scorches the West, California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), which manages California’s power grid, ordered utilities to implement rolling power outages last weekend – but only notified the Governor on Friday. Outages are particularly disruptive during the pandemic, with miilions of Californians working from home and educating children at home. Many have nowhere to go to escape the heat during an outage, with libraries and other public facilities closed due to COVID-19.

Governor Gavin Newsom voiced outrage and ordered an investigation, also signing an emergency proclamation that temporarily allows some energy users and utilities to use backup energy sources to relieve pressure on the grid during peak times in the energy emergency. Meanwhile CAISO is pointing the finger at the Public Utilities Commission, claiming it has been warning the PUC to take preventive steps for years to make utility companies assure they had emergency back-up energy sources lined up, but that the PUC ignored those warnings.

SDG&E and its customers helped prevent prolonged outages

Some SDG&E customers experienced brief rolling blackouts of approximately an hour over the weekend. The utility warned of potential outages again yesterday to up to 100,000 customers, but was able to prevent these thanks to residents and businesses heeding the call to cut back power usage during high energy demand periods between 4 and 9 p.m. SDG&E used emails, text messages, robocalls, and notices sent to media to get word out, as well as appealing directly to major energy users to reduce consumption – and it worked.  

Newsom, in a press conference yesterday, said of the rolling blackouts statewide that he wants to make sure “This never happens again in the state of California.” He pledged, “We’ll get to the bottom of it. “  

CAISO apologized for not alerting Newsom earlier, however ISO Chief Steve Berberich said the ISO has been warning the PUB for months or years that shortages were possible if the PUC didn’t assure that utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. lined up enough backup power in advance, under contract.  But the PUC, which is in charge of assuring resource adequacy, failed to take action, he asserted, the Sacramento Bee reports. The Bee contacted the PUC, but the watchdog agency did not respond, according to the Bee. “The resource adequacy program is broken, Berberich said.”

Still, some things have improved since the last major rolling blackouts in our state nearly two decades ago in 2001.  Back then, outages lasted far longer in California. In some states, the situation as even worse; an August 2003 “Northeast Blackout” caused by overgrown vegetation near powerlines in Ohio on a warm summer day crashed regional grids, leaving 50 million people in eight states and Canada in the dark for anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks. 

Energy efficiency of appliances and buildings have also improved over the past 20 years, as has the ability to communicate need for conservation to consumers and large energy users during extreme weather conditions.

Most importantly, nowadays, “California’s grid is much better managed,” says Pat Remick, senior energy communications strategic with the National Resource Defense Council.  That’s in part because our state is interconnected with a power system across western states, so during the current outage, hydroelectric power from the Pacific Northwest helped keep lights on in California. California meanwhile is relying on a growing portfolio of wind, solar and geothermal renewable resources; wind helps fill demand on cloudy days when solar is less efficient, for example. 

“That’s a far better and cheaper reliability strategy than running dirty emergency diesel generators on hot afternoons, often in densely populated places,” Remick says. That said, to avert blackouts some fossil fuel plants were utilized this week. 

Newsom emphasized that California remains committed to “moving away from fossil fuels toward solar and wind,” which the state has dramatically increased use of in recent years as the state moves toward an economy fueled by clean, renewable energy that also reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in order to combat climate change.

Still, Newsom acknowledged, “We cannot sacrifice reliability as we move forward in this transition.”

Guidance to residents and businesses to conserve power

CAISO highlighted three simple actions individuals and businesses can take to reduce energy consumption:

  • Set your thermostat to 78° or higher between 3 and 10 P.M.
  • Refrain from major appliance use between 3 and 10 P.M.
  • Turn off unnecessary lights and appliances

Additional steps and guidance for individuals & businesses:

  • Adjust Your Thermostat
    • During peak hours or when you’re not home, remember to set your thermostat at 78° or higher. Setting your air conditioner 5° higher can save up to 20 percent on cooling costs.
    • Pre-cool your home by running air conditioning at 72 degrees in the early part of the day (when it is more efficient) then turn your system to 78 or higher during the hottest part of the day when demand is the highest.
    • Use smart or programmable features to help maintain energy savings when you’re not home.
  • Close Windows and Doors 
    • Keep windows and doors closed to prevent the loss of cooled or heated air.
    • On summer nights, open windows to let cooler air in when safe. In the morning before the day starts to heat up, close windows and blinds to keep warm air out.
    • Tilt blinds up and close drapes and shades on windows that receive direct sunlight.
  • Smart Energy Use 
    • Turn off unnecessary lighting and use task or desktop lamps with LEDs instead of overhead lights.
    • Enable “power management” on all computers and turn off when not in use.
    • Unplug phone charges, power strips (those without a switch) and other equipment when not in use. Taken together, these small items can use as much power as your refrigerator.
  • Access and Functional Needs
    • Check in on neighbors, friends and family who may be at risk.
    • Charge medical devices in off hours and have back up plan for if the power goes out.
    • In addition to traditional community support channels, individuals with access and functional needs should reach out to local government for assistance.
    • Contact local utilities companies if you are dependent on power for assistive devices.
  • Major Appliance Use 
    • Postpone using major appliances like the oven, dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer until cooler times of the day to avoid heating up your home.
    • Run your dishwasher and clothes washer only when full. Wait until after 9 p.m. to use these and other major appliances.
    • When possible, wash clothes in cold water. About 90 percent of the energy used in a clothes washer goes to water heating.
  • Clean or Replace Your Filters 
    • A dirty filter forces your air conditioner and furnace to work harder, wasting money, using more energy or natural gas.
  • Adjust Your Water Heater 
    • Turn your water heater down to 120° or the “normal” setting. Water heating accounts for about 13 percent of home energy costs.
  • Conservation Programs 
    • Consider participating in your utility’s demand response program. These voluntary programs are short, temporary measures to reduce energy consumption when power supplies are critically low and a Flex Alert has been issued. Contact your local electric utility to learn about your utility’s program and incentives they may offer to participate.

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.

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