Why Did California ISO Turn Off the Power?
In the banner year that is 2020, Californians did not expect to add power outages to their list of forgettable experiences, but that is what many in the state experienced starting Friday, Aug. 14, as the California Independent System Operators ordered utilities to voluntarily cut power due to triple-digit temperatures and overwhelming power demand.
Loss of power initially hit several hundred thousand residents. The most recent numbers estimated that up to 3.3 million residents could be impacted.
The rolling blackouts struck a nerve with Governor Gavin Newsom, who called for an investigation into the cause of the blackouts Monday, Aug. 17 and declared a state of emergency over the extreme temperatures and wildfires on Tuesday, Aug. 18. Wildfires caused from lightning strikes and the dry California weather are also complicating the rolling blackout plan.
Newsom has cause for concern regarding California’s history with rolling blackouts. Two decades ago, energy blackouts became a rally cry during the 2003 recall of California Governor Gray Davis due to his mismanagement of a state energy crisis (and a few other things).
Before we call out those who may be responsible, which may be everyone involved, why does California implement rolling blackouts?
Power outages are administered by the California Independent System Operators, or CAISO as it is commonly called. One description called them the “air traffic controllers” for electricity. The nonprofit manages the delivery of roughly 80 percent of California electricity.
Another way to think of CAISO is a traffic cop. California utilities like PG&E, SMUD, and Southern California Edison still own the electricity and infrastructure, but CAISO makes sure it goes where it needs to across 26,000 miles of transmission lines.
These August power outages began on Friday, Aug. 14, amidst triple-digit temperatures, increased demand from air conditioner use, and the unexpected loss of two power plants. According to Bloomberg, CAISO asked utilities to cut 1,000 megawatts of power on Friday via 60 to 90-minute rolling blackouts which were estimated to impact 2 million Californians.
What CAISO did sounds reasonable and it could be that a perfect storm of events ultimately led to rolling power outages across the state. But a deeper dive shows inconsistencies are already emerging and those involved marking their ground.
Rolling blackouts ensure there is enough power in the grid. But it appears that CAISO implemented blackouts well before their standard protocols call for such an action.
David Marcus, an energy consultant and former adviser at the California Energy Commission, was quoted in the New York Times about the large discrepancy in CAISO actions that led to the blackouts.
“The first-stage alert began at 6 p.m., when California ISO’s operating reserves stood at 12 percent, said David Marcus, an energy consultant and former adviser at the California Energy Commission. Its standard for the first stage had been 8 percent, according to the grid operator’s 2019 resource assessment. The second stage began at 6:25 p.m., when its operating reserves stood at 9.59 percent, Mr. Marcus said. California ISO listed that stage in its assessment at 6 percent.”
Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy program said, “It seems as if certain power plants for some reason were not able to deliver on the commitments to supply reserves and also supply energy.”
The California Public Utilities Commission said CAISO mismanaged the situation and that neither investor-owned utilities or others were at fault.
Is CAISO completely to blame? Probably not.
CAISO sounded the alarm in a 2019 presentation about projected shortfalls in 2020. Three points in the presentation stand out, “The peak demand the ISO serves is shifting from the afternoon to the early evening, solar production is significantly reduced or not available during, these new, later peak demand hours, instead, we now rely on energy from natural gas resources and imports.”
CAISO CEO Steve Berberich has pointed to this presentation as a rallying point in response to the criticism.
Berberich recently said that, “The situation we are in could have been avoided,” and that CAISO has warned for many years that there was inadequate power available during the evening hours after sunset when solar energy stops working, according to E&E News.
Ironically, Greentech Media noted that California’s current trouble with blackouts are a side effect of the state’s shift to solar power. The shift to renewables has changed the measurement of net peak, or the measurement of total demand, which left the state with larger energy deficits than if utilities were using fossil fuels and natural gas.
PRI’s Legislating Energy Prosperity study earlier this year found that emissions have fallen 14 percent nationwide compared to just 9 percent in California since 2007.
Lance Hastings, President of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, summarized California’s current energy situation best, “Hot weather and a cloudy day should not be able to shut down the fifth-largest economy in the world. In fact, we shouldn’t even be claiming that about our economy if we can’t keep the lights on.”
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach coordinator for PRI.