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Power Operators Eye Thermostat, Newsom Declares Emergency

High voltage signs are posted on the Department of Water and Power sub station E in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020.
Associated Press
High voltage signs are posted on the Department of Water and Power sub station E in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020.
California's power grid managers are under fire after calling for the first rolling blackouts since 2001.

California’s power grid operator pleaded for more energy conversation to overcome another large energy gap Tuesday and avoid rolling blackouts as Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency over hundreds of wildfires burning throughout the state.

Steve Berberich, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, praised residents and businesses for astonishing conservation efforts that kept the power on Monday night.


He said operators were stunned by the “dramatic flattening" of consumption at 3 p.m. Monday after his office warned that as many as 3.3 million homes and businesses would be affected by rotating, two-hour outages. The order never was issued and the warning was canceled.

“It was stunning the conservation response that we got," he said Tuesday. “I know it’s hot and I know it’s hard, but those same actions today can make all the difference in the world.”

The state is in a days-long heatwave that has stressed the electrical system and resulted in rolling blackouts over two nights last weekend. The strong ridge of high pressure responsible for the heat wave was expected to gradually weaken, but excessive hot weather was expected into the weekend as families stay at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

California ISO issued the first rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years on Friday. That meant the state’s three biggest utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — turned off power to more than 410,000 homes and businesses for about an hour, at a time until the emergency declaration ended 3½ hours later.

A second but shorter outage hit Saturday evening, affecting more than 200,000 customers.

Video: Power Operators Eye Thermostat, Newsom Declares Emergency

A former utility regulator said it didn't need to happen.

“Our economy depends on a reliable grid,” said Loretta Lynch, a former president of the California Public Utilities Commission. “And if the grid operator, whose sole job is to keep the lights on, can’t do it, then we need to look at building a different kind of house.”

Lynch said Cal-ISO had no need to institute rolling blackouts to protect the grid. The state’s utilities are required to have adequate power reserves for just this kind of situation, she added.

“The utilities have already bought up to 100% of the expected peak, plus 15% more,” Lynch said. “The ISO just won’t use this for no good reason, and that’s what they should be explaining to all of California.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency proclamation Sunday allowing some energy users and utilities to tap backup energy sources, which helped with Tuesday’s energy needs. He also demanded an investigation into Friday and Saturday blackouts, calling them “unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state.”

Lynch wants more transparency and the governor has called for an investigation into what happened.

But a member of the Cal-ISO board said transparency might not be practical because grid operators are helping utilities secure power on the open market.

“There is a reason to keep contracts confidential in business dealings,” Borenstein said. “They’re trying to get the best deals they can. And making them public could undermine that.”

Scorching weather has hit other Western states, making it harder for California to import extra power.

The first rolling outages since 2001 were not entirely unexpected, according to Borenstein who said power forecasts in January predicted supplies would be tight if a powerful heat wave hit.

Power Operators Eye Thermostat, Newsom Declares Emergency
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.