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State optimistic about avoiding power outages this summer

Electric powerlines (copy)

Power lines at sunset.

Senior state energy officials voiced optimism Tuesday that a series of steps taken since last summer will prevent a repeat of August's rotating power outages, though they did not rule out the possibility it could happen again this year, especially if an extreme heat wave hits the entire western United States.

Officials representing government agencies and the operator of California's power grid said work continues but it appears there will be enough electrical generation and storage capacity that, combined with other measures including mechanisms for reducing demand for power, should be enough to meet demand during the hottest summer heat.

"I have a high degree of confidence" there won't be outages again this year, said President Mary Batjer of the California Public Utilities Commission.

"In this era of climate change and severe weather … no one can predict 100 percent," she continued. "But I feel what we have undertaken since September — the different reforms we have made, the modification to existing programs we have made — I think we have picked up the corners of the tent and examined everything very carefully."

Batjer joined officials with the California Energy Commission and the California Independent System Operator in explaining to reporters Tuesday afternoon the challenges ahead as the state tries to meet its ambitious climate goals as it works to phase out the use of petroleum- and nuclear-powered energy generation.

A root-cause analysis ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the aftermath of outages Aug. 14-15 placed blame on a combination of extreme weather, market practices, resource adequacy and insufficient planning.

Cal ISO President Elliott Mainzer said Tuesday the state can no longer live as "close to the edge" as it did last year with power supplies only barely meeting demand. He said the state "has to have more margin for error" in case something goes wrong.

The amount of power available this summer "is actually still a moving target" but there should be an additional 3,000 to 3,500 megawatts of electricity available as needed, he said.

Outages probably won't become necessary if only California suffers a heat wave requiring electricity from suppliers elsewhere across the West, he said. But if other states also suffer extremely hot weather at the same time, "then things will tighten up."

Mainzer expressed concern wildfires could limit energy availability because smoke reduces solar power installations' ability to produce power. Likewise, he said, drought conditions could impact electricity supplies but that operators of hydro-electric dams have indicated they will do what they can to keep their generation capacity online.

He added that power transmission capacity was not limited last year but "that could change" this year.

Cal-ISO and others are trying to hedge this year, he said, "but we're not really done yet" and California's climate goals have made things harder.

"This transition is going to be difficult and it's going to be all hands on deck," he said.

Batjer said it's unfortunate but that, for now, it looks like California will have to continue sourcing some of its electricity from natural gas-burning power plants.

"We're not pleased that we still have to use gas and fossil fuels but our reality is that … we've got peak and net peak to worry about," she said. "We're balancing right now. … We did what we had to do."

Mainzer emphasized there was no evidence of generators withholding power during the August blackouts or any sign of market manipulation exacerbating the situation or raising costs to ratepayers.

"Last year was a function of supply-demand imbalance," he said. "Prices responded accordingly."

A summary provided by the energy commission pointed out various measures taken to avoid outages this year.

In March the CPUC directed Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the state's investor-owned utilities to arrange to buy an additional 2.5 percent of power above the existing buffer of 15 percent to 17.5 percent.

The commission also ordered the utilities to pilot an "emergency load reduction program" allowing companies to provide new services for managing demand for power, including compensating customers for voluntarily reducing their electricity requirements during emergencies.

Additionally, the CPUC told utilities to make changes to their critical peak pricing programs, which charge customers higher rates during peak hours on certain days. Among other modifications was an increase to the number of critical-peak pricing events per year.

Also, industrial and large commercial customers will pay a lower rate for power in exchange for their promise to lower usage when reliability of power comes into question.