Conservation Plus Power Supply May Not Avert Outages

Downtown skyline is seen behind high tension towers along the LA river in Los Angeles, California on August 16, 2020. (APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

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This story has been updated.

Sunday's unusually hot weather spiked consumer demand for the energy to keep air conditioners and fans running, and heat-related equipment issues caused scattered power outages across Southern California.

State power grid managers called a Flex Alert from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., which calls on energy customers to cut back on demand and set air conditioners at 78 or higher.

In a media call Sunday afternoon, the California Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid for most of the state's utilities, said it is anticipates running about 4,000 megawatts short of demand by the end of the day when demand spikes and solar energy falls off.

That means it's possible that rolling outages could be requested of member utilities today starting around 4 p.m. Statewide, that could affect as many as three million customers.

"At noon, we issued a warning, because we still have not been able to find enough energy to make up that [anticipated 4,000 MW] shortage," said John Phipps of CA ISO. Shortly after 4 p.m. he said they will declare a Stage 2 Emergency, which means the ISO has no further means to procure electricity and turns to neighboring power grids, like the one operated by LADWP, for extra power.

A Stage 2 Emergency is also an urgent call for conservation to keep the state's utilities from running short of power, and a final step before calling for rolling outages, he said.

Today is shaping up to be the most challenging day the ISO has had this year for supplying power to the statewide power grid, said Eric Schmitt, CAISO vice president. He said he expected the system demand to peak at 49,000 megawatts, which is about 2,000 MW higher than the year's previous high demand.

During the Aug. 14-17 heatwave, when some rolling outages were imposed for the first time in 20 years, Californians conserving power on the final two days were able to close a power shortfall and avert the outages of the first two days. So enough conservation quickly enough could prevent shutdowns, Schmitt said.

The statewide power grid has been losing transmission lines to fires. Shortly after 1 p.m., the system lost one line carrying about 600 MW of generation due to a fire located in Southern California. The website where CAISO displays its anticipated supply-and-demand is a snapshot of what they think they will have, but incidents such as fires and changes in the weather can change things quickly.

HEAT RELATED EQUIPMENT OUTAGES

As of about 1 p.m., about 10,000 DWP customers were without power, said spokesman Joseph Ramallo. The city utility's system still had power to spare, but the issue was equipment overheating and shutting down. Repairs for some customers could take 24 to 36 hours, he said.

When some of DWP's aging equipment runs continuously without the usual overnight cooling-off, it can overheat and then shut down to prevent damage. It can take hours for the equipment to cool. And when there are scattered outages, it can take time to get work crews out to every problem area.

Southern California Edison, which serves millions of customers outside the city of Los Angeles, also had scattered outages Sunday morning, affecting about 26,000 customers. About 2,500 customers were without power due to the Creek fire, burning in the Sierra National Forest in Fresno County.

There is a strong chance for rolling blackouts beginning around 4 p.m., Edison spokesman Reggie Kumar said. The company assigns numbers to large blocks of customers to determine which ones are cut off at any given time. To see where you might fall on the rotation, check your account here.

"Customers will find their rotating outage group number, and that number is [also] on their bill," Kumar said. "And then they can check to see if their neighborhood is in that group."

SUPPLY CAN MEET POWER DEMAND FOR NOW

For several hours Sunday morning, the California Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid for most of the state's utilities, projected that demand would outstrip the supply by a few thousand megawatts. (See daily power supply and demand projections here.)

By noon, enough power had been arranged to supply more than 53,000 megawatts at the peak usage time of day, with a forecasted peak usage of 47,500 megawatts. But that's still cutting it close, because not all 53,000 megawatts can be delivered to customers. Plus, a fire in Southern California caused an interruption in some power generation, hence the prediction for a power shortfall.

The situation was similarly dire on Saturday, when the California ISO issued a Stage 2 Emergency around 6 p.m.. That meant the power grid had procured just about all the energy it could and, if demand increased, rolling outages could occur. However, Saturday ended without rolling outages.

WITHOUT POWER FOR MORE THAN 12 HOURS

DWP customer Albert Lopez lost power at his Mission Hills home around 9 p.m. Saturday. He was watching the Dodgers game and everything went dark. He called the utility, and its automated service line took his account number and callback number. He was initially advised the outage could last four to 12 hours. But by Sunday morning, the power was still out.

"They did call, a robocall said, 'The repairs in your area are taking longer than usual, thank you for your patience,' and that was it," Lopez said.

He's worried about the outage because he's training at home online for a new job handling unemployment claims for the state, and needs electricity and working Internet to complete the training.

HOW YOU CAN SAVE ENERGY:

  • Set your air conditioning at 78 or higher. If you can turn it off and use a fan instead, even better. You can pre-cool your house to 72 in the morning hours when there is lower demand on the power system, then when you set it to 78 in the afternoon, it won't be quite as unbearable.
  • Unplug "energy vampires" — those appliances that are sucking power from the grid even when they are not being used, like a microwave oven, and phone chargers.
  • Close drapes and blinds to keep your home cooler inside. Turn off unneeded lights.
  • Wait until the early morning or late evening hours to run the washing machine or dishwasher, or vacuum.
  • If you have an electric car, don't charge it in those afternoon or evening hours
  • For those lucky enough to have a pool, do your part by turning off your pool pump.