How a text message averted major blackouts



Late Tuesday afternoon, California’s power grid was straining under the most severe heat wave in the state’s recorded history.

As millions of residents cranked up air conditioning from the East Bay to the Central Valley and Los Angeles, sweltering in temperatures between 105 and 115 degrees, electricity use hit all-time records, and it appeared demand for power was going to exceed supply, triggering the first rolling blackouts in two years.

Then, the text message went out.

At 5:45 p.m. the California Office of Emergency Service sent an emergency bulletin that popped onto the cell phones of 27 million people in 25 counties with the largest populations and highest temperatures.

“Conserve energy now to protect public health and safety,” read the alert, in English and Spanish. “Extreme heat is straining the state energy grid. Power interruptions may occur unless you take action. Turn off or reduce nonessential power if health allows, now until 9 p.m.”

It was only the third time in the past 10 years that the state has used that kind of text bulletin, called the Wireless Emergency Alert system. The last time, in December 2020, was during COVID stay-at-home orders, and in 2017 for Southern California wildfires. It has never been used before for energy shortages.

Over the next 45 minutes, as homeowners turned off lights and eased off air conditioning, electricity demand fell by 2,600 megawatts, more power than the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was generating at full capacity, and enough electricity to power 2 million homes.

On Wednesday, the state’s grid operators said the sudden conservation saved the day.

“Within moments we saw a significant amount of load reduction,” said Elliott Mainzer, CEO of the California Independent System Operator. “That significant response allowed us to restore our operating reserves and took us back from the edge.”

Mainzer said that grid conditions will be continue to be tight Wednesday and Thursday evenings, as the heat wave was expected to wind down, with many areas forecast to cool off significantly over the weekend and into next week.

“This is an extremely prolonged event,” he said. “We have been asking folks every day. We’re hopefully two days from the end of the heat wave. We need folks to run through the tape and give us everything they’ve got.”

California’s peak demand Tuesday night hit 52,061 megawatts, breaking the all-time record from 2006. Demand Wednesday, with slightly cooler temperatures, was expected to be less, the ISO said, about 51,146 megawatts, but still very high, with Thursday expected to be similar.

A number of other factors have helped keep the lights on this week amid the unprecedented heat wave, made worse by climate change.

California’s ongoing drought reduced available hydropower by about 1,500 megawatts. But cooler temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, and contracts signed by utilities in the past two years with power generators ramped up imports from out-of-state producers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency order last week allowing normally shuttered natural gas “peaker” plants to operate and ships in port to run on bunker fuel instead of plugging into electrical power at docks, both of which boost electricity supplies but temporarily increase air pollution.

The state also has provided incentives to dramatically boost industrial battery storage — which captures electricity from large solar farms during the day and releases it early in the evening when solar power drops because the sun has gone down, but hot temperatures keep air conditioning demand high. Such battery storage provided about 3,500 megawatts Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 times as much as two years ago.

“ISO operators like to think of themselves like jet pilots,” said Frank Wolak, a Stanford University professor who specializes in energy issues. “They were flying really fast, close to the ground. Compliments to them.”

Wolak said more long-term solutions are needed, however, to reduce the risk of blackouts in future years. They include keeping baseline power, like hydro, nuclear and geothermal, along with having agencies like the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) offer far more financial incentives for homeowners to cut power use from 4 pm to 9 pm on hot days, through programs that would also do things like pay people with home battery systems high rates to sell that power up on to the grid.

“There are all sorts of creative things that can be done,” he said. “The PUC has been dragging their feet on this. We just don’t have the energy to meet the demand. We need to redesign the incentives.”

State officials said Wednesday they hope to avoid using the emergency text system — which is normally used by counites for wildfires, earthquakes and other unfolding calamities — through the rest of the heat wave.

Newsom said Wednesday his aides debated for four or five days about the pros and cons of using it.

“If you overuse that, it begins to dilute itself,” he said during a visit to Los Angeles. “I’m hoping we don’t have to do that again.”

The wireless alert system was used after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and in New York during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Hawaii’s emergency agency mistakenly sent an alert in 2018 that the island was about to be hit by a missile, causing panic, the result of an employee error during a routine test.

On Wednesday, the ISO declared a level 2 emergency. The night before, on Tuesday night, the ISO declared a level 3 emergency — the highest level before demand exceeds electricity supply and it orders utilities like PG&E to begin rolling blackouts. The ISO never gave the blackout order, however. By 8 p.m., the crisis was over, as temperatures cooled and air conditioning use dropped.

There were some localized outages Tuesday. Several thousand customers in Palo Alto, Alameda and Healdsburg were cut off for between 30 minutes and an hour after the Northern California Power Agency mistakenly ordered them into rotating outages.

And there were about 84,000 customers across the South Bay, including in San Jose, Saratoga and other areas, who lost power for several hours as a result of PG&E transformers and other equipment that failed in the heat.

Wolak said that the grid will be tight for another two days. A fire that takes down transmission lines or a failure at a major power plant could undo the ISO’s balancing act.

“We’re probably one large unit outage away from not so good outcomes,” he said. “I don’t think we are out of the woods to be perfectly honest. We’ve got to be vigilant.”



Source link

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: