Summer’s balancing act

By ANDREW GALVIN
The Orange County Register

Four years after a power deficit prompted California’s grid manager to impose “rotating outages,” the improvement in the state’s power situation is just barely keeping pace with new demand in fast-growing Southern California.

Southern California “is the worst electricity-supply situation in the entire country,” Joseph Kelliher, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said in June.

This year, we probably have enough power to get through normal summer weather without resorting to blackouts. But if the heat turns extreme, supplies could become severely strained. A regional heat wave across the West would divert power we import from other states, leaving Southern California to depend on its own, barely adequate generating resources.

Combine a heat wave with another crisis such as a wildfire that takes down a major transmission line, and we could be plunged into darkness.

If you’re wondering why we’re in this situation, here are some reasons:

Growth

During the 2000-2001 energy crisis, Northern California was worse off than Southern California. That’s changed, partly because economic and population gains have been faster here. And much of the growth is coming in areas such as the Inland Empire, where summer temperatures are hotter and demand for electricity to run air conditioning is higher.

Meanwhile, most of the new power plants to come online since the last crisis are in Northern California, and most of the plants that have been shuttered or mothballed are in Southern California.

In 2001, transmission bottlenecks limited the amount of power that could be shipped up and down the state, contributing to two extra days of blackouts in the north. Those bottlenecks have been eased through major upgrade projects.

UNCERTAINTY

Even though there is a clear need for new power plants, obstacles to getting them built remain.

The 2000-2001 crisis resulted in part from the state’s failed experiment with a deregulated wholesale market for electricity. That failure left the state’s regulatory system in shambles. Since then, state agencies such as the California Public Utilities Commission have been working to build a new framework, but they aren’t finished. That leaves banks and other financiers uncertain about how they would be allowed to recoup and profit from investments in new power plants.

Even amid that uncertainty, some new-generation plants are getting built, such as Calpine Corp.’s Pastoria Energy Facility near Bakersfield, a 750-megawatt plant that began operation this year. One megawatt is enough to power 650 typical homes during summer.

HEAT

August is the touch-and-go month, when demand for power is typically highest. A forecast prepared by the state’s grid manager, the California Independent System Operator, shows Southern California could come up short if the region experiences the type of pan-Western heat wave that typically occurs in one out of 10 summers.

“It’s a bit disheartening, quite frankly, to see that we’re looking again at … a potentially tight summer, maybe another two,” Pat Wood, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said at a conference in San Francisco in June.

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