California Requests Federal Emergency Order to Avert Blackouts

Operator requests rare federal order to stabilize power grid amid heatwave, fires
By Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
September 8, 2020Updated: September 8, 2020

Following a September 6 request from California’s Independent System Operator (CAISO) (pdf), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued a rare 7-day emergency order (pdf) to preserve the reliability of California’s bulk power system. The order authorized three natural gas-fueled power stations to operate at their maximum generation output levels—which they normally cannot do without exceeding federal air quality regulations.

The CAISO reported that with the emergency order, up to 100 MW of electricity could be added to the grid from this otherwise “stranded” capacity. The power plants at the center of the request included units 1-5 at the Walnut Creek Energy Park in the City of Industry, Los Angeles County; units 5/6 and 7/8 at the El Segundo Energy Center in El Segundo, Los Angeles County; and units 1-4 at the generating station in Long Beach, California.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette asked California’s policymakers to evaluate why the state’s grid is currently unable to accommodate stressor events, which the Secretary said could be alleviated with more base supply and natural gas generation.

Unusual Request

The request stated that while California Gov. Gavin Newsom had proclaimed a State of Emergency related to the extreme heat on September 3, and while that proclamation suspended state and local air pollution limits that restricted the amount of power a plant could produce, it did not suspend permitting requirements under federal law, such as National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) relating to nitrogen oxide, ammonia, and other emissions.

In his declaration of a State of Emergency, Newsom had asked power plants across California to produce “as much power as possible.” On September 5, however, the operator of the facilities named above informed CAISO that it “could not produce to its maximum generation capability without exceeding its federal air quality or other permit limitations.”

Downtown skyline is seen
The downtown skyline is seen behind high tension towers in Los Angeles on Aug. 16, 2020. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition, CAISO lost approximately 1,600 MW of generation capacity on September 5 as a result of wildfires that forced transmission infrastructure out of service.

The request for federal assistance came as California headed into another week forecast to bring extremely hot temperatures to the state.

Newsom in a statement said the State grid was “predicted to approach record energy demand today [Sunday] due to an extreme heat storm.”

Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act was invoked the following day by Bruce Walker, the U.S. Assistant Secretary at the DOE’s Office of Electricity—just hours after the request had been made by Steve Berberich, President and CEO of CAISO. Underlining the urgency of California’s power shortage, Berberich’s letter (pdf) stated that “the CAISO urges DOE not to delay the issuance of the initial order sought here pending the provision of additional information,” with the ISO promising to expedite any such information request.

Heat, Wildfires Stretching Capacity

California has experienced a series of heatwaves through August and into September. According to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, over 7,400 wildfire incidents have been recorded in 2020 so far, compared to 7,639 for all of 2018 that was California’s deadliest wildfire season on record with 100 fatalities.

However, widespread forest fires have also played havoc with the state’s transmission and power provision system, even while the heatwave has caused electricity usage for air conditioning and cooling to soar.

Newsom’s September 2 emergency proclamation authorized the use of stationary generators, portable generators, and “auxiliary engines by ocean-going vessels berthed in California ports” to help alleviate any power shortfall. In addition, the state’s Air Resources Board was directed to exercise discretion in allowing the use of such unorthodox modes of electricity generation.