California Blackouts During Heatwave Draw Political Fire

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After the state’s overloaded power grid left hundreds of thousands of homes in the dark as temperatures soared close to 110, California Governor Gavin Newsom responded Monday by ordering an investigation into the weekend’s rolling blackouts.

Newsom is demanding answers from the managers of California’s electricity grid after deficient supplies forced the state’s largest utilities to resort to widespread rolling blackouts for the first time in nearly 20 years. The intentional shutoffs left hundreds of thousands of customers without power amid a statewide heatwave for hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles.    

The Democratic governor said the blackouts occurred without proper warning and are particularly humiliating for a state known for its technological innovation. 

“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 said in a statement.

In addition to the probe of the California Independent System Operator (ISO) and the Public Utilities Commission, Newsom declared a state of emergency through Aug. 20 and loosened restrictions regarding the use of stationary generators and other backup sources. 

On Friday afternoon, the ISO for the first time since 2001 directed utilities to execute rolling blackouts to conserve energy.

While Friday’s peak energy demand of 46,800 megawatts was lower than the record mark of 50,270 set in July 2006, the ISO blamed an unexpected production drop due to natural gas power plants going offline along with a lack of available out-of-state supplies.

Blackouts were also ordered Saturday afternoon and the ISO is warning they could reoccur over the next three days as the Golden State continues to sizzle. 

“A persistent, record-breaking heat wave in California and the western states is causing a strain on supplies, and consumers should be prepared for likely rolling outages during the late afternoons and early evenings through Wednesday,” the independent regulator said in a so-called flex alert. “There is not a sufficient amount of energy to meet the high amounts of demand during the heatwave.”

The debacle evoked memories of the 2001 energy crisis in which Enron and other traders took advantage of the state’s deregulated energy network and manipulated electricity prices. Crooked investors bought power plants from investor-owned utilities and created a bidding war that ultimately left millions in the dark for long stretches as well as higher power bills. 

The aftermath of the scandal spurred new regulations intended to weed out corrupt energy trading and force utilities to keep a higher amount of reserves. It also prompted the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis and cost ratepayers billions. 

Following an emergency meeting Sunday with the grid operators and state energy agencies, Newsom fired off a stinging letter announcing the new investigation. Newsom claimed grid operators were “caught flat-footed” and that even he didn’t know of the blackouts until moments before the lights went off.

“California residents, who are battling challenging conditions of a heatwave combined with a global pandemic in which we have encouraged people to stay at home as much as possible, were forced to fend without electrical power — a basic necessity,” the letter states. “ISO must do more to warn residents about the possibility of blackouts.”

But Newsom was given advance notice of the potential for a strained grid as the ISO last warned in a press release this past Thursday that triple-digit temperatures and increased demand could lead to “tighter energy supplies.” Furthermore, the next day Newsom asked Californians to conserve electricity over the weekend.  

Now, officials predict a 4,400-megawatt shortage Monday afternoon — enough energy to supply 3.3 million homes.  

Newsom said the state is working to find ways for major ports to reduce energy usage and employ backup power sources that utilities have on hand for wildfire outages. The state is also looking to boost imports from neighboring states, but that it likely won’t be enough to cure the energy shortage in the near term.

“But we’re not just going to accept that as fate. We are going to make sure this never happens again in California,” Newsom said.

California maintains a “prideful” sustainable energy portfolio, but the past weekend has exposed an overreliance on energy sources that may not yet be able to meet high demand, Newsom said Monday.

“With the need to shut down polluting gas plants comes the need to have more insurance, and there have been, by definition, in the next few days, gaps in that reliability,” Newsom said. “We can’t sacrifice reliability as we move forward in this transition.”

The blackouts have coincided with one of the most bizarre weather patterns in the state’s history.

Along with record-setting heat in cities like Los Angeles, Stockton and Sacramento and one of Earth’s highest recorded temperatures of 130 in Death Valley, rare summer thunderstorms have sparked wildfires in Northern California.

Citing climate change, Newsom said California’s wild weather is exactly what scientists have been predicting for years. Newsom said despite the state’s struggle to keep the lights on, California won’t shy from its climate change policies or goals for a wholly green grid.

“We are not backing off on that commitment, quite the contrary,” Newsom said in a press conference.

Blackouts were avoided Monday night as the ISO said it lifted its emergency declaration thanks to lower temperatures and conservation efforts.

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