California Gov Warns of Power Outages as Heatwave Projected to Intensify

August 18, 2020 Updated: August 18, 2020

Gov. Gavin Newsom said that California may continue to have serious power outages through Wednesday amid a West Coast heat wave that is projected to intensify over the coming week.

“We are likely to fall short and should face some episodic issues. These next few days, we are anticipating being challenged,” Newsom said at a press conference on Monday.

“I am not pleased with what’s happened, I take a back seat to no one,” he also said. “You shouldn’t be pleased with the moment that we’re in here in the state of California.”

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) on Sunday issued a statewide “flex alert” (pdf)—a call for people to voluntarily conserve electricity—that will extend through Wednesday, to be in effect from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. each day. It cited a “persistent, record-breaking heatwave in California and the western states” that meant inadequate energy to meet the high amounts of demand amid the heatwave.

Late on Monday, the grid operator announced (pdf) that no rotating power outages were expected on the night “thanks to reduced demand due to consumer conservation and cooler than expected weather,” but warned that the heatwave continues and the state expects “exceedingly hot temperatures” through Wednesday.

“With continued help from California residents in conserving energy, much like today, we can reduce the risk of power outages. Our grid operators and all the [CAISO] staff have been doing everything they can to find energy to cover demand during this heat wave and to keep the system balanced during an extreme heat wave,” Steve Berberich, the grid operator’s president and CEO said in a statement.

CAISO is asking Californian residents conserve energy between 3 to 10 p.m., including by setting air conditioning thermostats to 78 degrees, deferring use of major appliances, turning off unnecessary lights, unplugging unused electrical devices, closing blinds and drapes, using fans when possible, and limiting time the refrigerator door is open.

It is also advising people to do make preparations before 3 p.m., including to pre-cool their homes or lower air-conditioning thermostats to 72 degrees, charge electric devices, and run dishwashers and other major appliances.

California experienced its first rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years on Aug. 14 due to unusually high temperatures—upward of 100 degrees throughout the state—that put a strain on the electrical grid. Rolling blackouts, also known as rolling outages, are intentional temporary power outages that utilities impose on one area at a time to lower the energy demand, to help prevent long, widespread blackouts.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric—the three biggest utilities in the state—switched off power to more than 410,000 homes and businesses for about an hour at a time. On late Aug. 15, a second but shorter power outage affected more than 200,000 customers.

Newsom signed an emergency proclamation (pdf) on Aug. 16 to temporarily allow energy users and utilities to use backup energy sources during the peak hours in efforts to relieve the strain on the electrical grid.

Newsom said that the state failed to predict and prevent the energy shortages, which is “unacceptable.”

“As the governor, I’m ultimately accountable and will ultimately take responsibility—have taken, I assure you, responsibility to immediately address this issue,” he said. “I have moved forward to make sure this simply does not happen again here in the state of California.”

Newsom said he has met with multiple government organizations and businesses since Aug. 16 to understand the conditions that led up to the power outages.

He also sent a letter (pdf) on Monday asking the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and CAISO to investigate the power disruptions.

“I write today to express my deep concern about the broadscale de-energizations experienced by too many Californians on August 14 and 15th. These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in the letter.

“Residents, communities, and other governmental organizations did not receive sufficient warning that these de-energizations could occur. Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians. This cannot stand. California residents and businesses deserve better from their government,” Newsom added.

California has become more reliant on renewable energy sources in recent years as state lawmakers back in 2018 set lofty carbon reduction targets, which include having 100 percent zero carbon electricity by 2045, and 50 percent of the state’s electricity to be powered by renewables by 2030. An estimated 34 percent of the state’s electricity came from renewables in 2018. Solar and wind comprise 23 percent of the California Power Mix as of 2018.

Newsom said that the state government is “prideful” of California’s renewable portfolio, but this has made the state “vulnerable” under current conditions.

“While we’ve had some peak gust winds, wind events across the state have been relatively mild—by the way, that’s a good thing from a fire suppression perspective—that’s an unfortunately moment as it relates more broadly to addressing the episodic nature of renewable portfolio which we are prideful in the state of California, but vulnerable to in these conditions that I have stated,” he said.

The governor said the state is “not backing off” on the state’s commitment to transition to renewables, but acknowledged that there have been “gaps” in energy reliability in the transition process as demonstrated by the heatwave currently taking place.

He added that the state “cannot sacrifice that reliability as we move forward in this transition” from fossil fuels to renewables, adding that California must “be much more mindful in terms of our capacity,” and “provide backup and insurance” to renewables.

California also still faces the threat of power outages to prevent wildfires. Thousands were without power for days last year when Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities shut off lines amid high, dry winds in order to prevent wildfires.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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