“In the dark.” That is where some Californians have been with recent rolling power blackouts. In the dark and in the heat, too, as the state swelters in a heat wave. Death Valley in California recently recorded the hottest temperature ever in the world. That says something about changes in weather and maybe climate.

Cal. PUC 2019 report. Interesting reading.

Finger pointing has started for California. This Energy Consumer Weekend is our start to pick apart the reasons Californians have been baking in the dark, and what that could teach the rest of us. There is something to learn, too.

For the Carolinas and Southeast the question is whether they will be California. Will the trap be laid – iffy supply, proper energy planning and execution, a highly informed customer base that demands accountability.

While the Carolinas may not have the extreme heat (yet), it can have big storms, population growth, or extenuating business or political storms that hamper smart power planning.

Consumers, be aware. And beware. Let’s look at some issues.

Supply and demand. A business basic. While not perfect it works in the big scheme, and in some cases – where public health and safety are center stage – benefits from expert guidance. (Note that we say expert guidance – not someone seeking votes for office, with a narrow business interest, or who is uninformed about how electricity works.)

California demand/capacity – Thurs. afternoon

Consumers benefit when there is a smart, analytical state public service regulation of the supply chain of power. Electric service is not something to delegate 100 percent to the free market because there will be no protection for those who cannot protect themselves.

California some 20 years ago saw its deregulation allow skyrocketing prices, questionable supply, and market manipulation in electricity. While not the same right now, there are similarities.

Here’s ECC’s list of issues we see in the Great California Power Debacle 2020.

July temps in California (NOAA)

Weather and climate: It’s hot. The grid works when it’s hot, but not well if it’s really hot for extended periods. The grid needs a break. One example: “A prolonged hot spell could trigger scattered outages as aging utility equipment fails in the heat. Transformers — the metal cylinders sitting atop power poles — can break down and even catch fire if they can’t cool off at night. During a 10-day heatwave in 2006, California utilities lost more than 1,500 of the devices, with each knocking out one neighborhood in the process.”

Supply: No utility can deliver power that doesn’t exist. “The California Independent System Operator, the nonprofit entity that controls the flow of electricity for 80 percent of California, said it acted [ordered rolling blackouts] after three power plants shut down and wind power production dropped. It also cited a lack of access to electricity from out-of-state sources,” said the New York Times in a story, Rolling Blackouts in California Have Power Experts Stumped

Check these two facets of power supply.

First, is the power generation capacity even there? California shut down two nuclear reactors (in one plant site) a couple years ago. The state is scheduled to shut down another nuclear plant site – Diablo Canyon in a few years.

Then there is natural gas. “Thousands of megawatts of natural-gas plants that have since closed. California is set to close even more gas-fired power plants in the coming years.”  (Source – left)

Second, is the generating capacity operating? “California grid operators said that a 500-megawatt generator tripped offline unexpectedly during peak demand hours Friday and that a 750 megawatt unit that was out of service didn’t return until after the peak hit,” reported Bloomberg News.

It is important to note that no power plant runs all the time. They shut down for maintenance, for instance. That’s why a reserve margin is critical – to have some extra power available for emergency needs. In a regulated market that margin is carefully managed. (Check our blog about it from July.)

Importing power: Some states have agreements to import power from other states when they need it. Like a cup of sugar from a neighbor. If your neighbors are baking, too, they can’t spare the sugar. California’s neighbors were baking.

The leader of California’s power system said, “What we have is a situation where the entire region is more than hot, it’s extremely hot … We can’t get the energy that we would normally get from out of state.” Other states are not sending power to California. (Source)                                        

Energy diversity: In a state that has moved in a big way to solar and shut down 24/7 power sources, something can give. And did. “…We had thousands of megawatts of solar reducing their output as the sun set,” a spokesperson for the California Independent System Operator told Bloomberg News.

Energy experts said the blackouts are, “…a side effect of the state’s increasing shift to solar power and away from natural-gas-fired generators … This shift pushed back the moment of ‘net peak’ demand on the state’s grid — a measure of total demand minus renewable energy’s contribution — into later in the evening.” Therefore, the power is not there when needed.

Wind generation apparently slowed, too.

Recent reports say that California may opt to not close several natural gas generation plants. (Image, left) Watch for updates.

Price: In California’s electric problems 20 years ago, traders played with the market to make the most money for themselves and their companies. No real evidence of that now.

So where are we?

The issues that have caused California’s rolling blackouts roll up to something ECC has written about before. One business story frames it like this: “It is becoming clear that this is a story of mismanagement.”

ECC saw that California Governor Gavin Newsom said the power crisis is “unacceptable” and said there will be a full investigation. (There, that’s better.) (His social media feed, right.)

No one did this on purpose. Where was the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) in the planning? The California PUC responded to the Governor. Here’s its letter.

Notably the California situation involves the Governor, legislature, CPUC, CAISO (California Independent System Operator), an “Energy Czar,” Energy Commission, and there are national oversight groups.

Who is in charge? Is the answer to add more alphabet soup agencies? How much bureaucracy is enough, and too much? What protects citizens, and what gets in the way?

Real management is essential. Using real knowledge of how the grid and electricity work. Not start-ups based on the latest renewable. Not big companies that want to continue an old business model. Not people clamoring for higher office. In this case the business models of supply and demand, healthy competition, a smart state regulatory system, and an informed customer base make all the difference.

Those are all choices the Carolinas need to take into consideration.

Our advice for consumers is to be involved. Read up on the issues. Voice your thinking to elected officials.

As a consumer –

  • Our energy service should be an ongoing learning experience based on what we see happening in our states and others.
  • Our energy service should be based on open and thoughtful planning and communications from energy companies.
  • Our energy service should not put families at risk through a lack of energy or from financial malfeasance.

ECC started as an organization by reporting the energy climate in the Carolinas. We’ll keep an eye on California and other parts of the country to keep learning how to make sense in the energy industry no matter the state.