En­ergy grid didn’t need flex alert, ex­perts say

The call sent prices soar­ing, but there was no short­age of power.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Ivan Penn

As record-set­ting tem­per­a­tures surged into the triple dig­its in parts of Cal­i­for­nia this week, the man­ager of the state’s elec­tri­cal grid put out an ur­gent plea: Turn down the AC and con­serve power to avoid ro­tat­ing out­ages.

The two-day flex alert by the Cal­i­for­nia In­de­pen­dent Sys­tem Op­er­a­tor drew head­lines from dozens of media out­lets across the state and coun­try. It also sent elec­tric­ity prices on the whole­sale market soar­ing four to five times higher than nor­mal — a cost that will be passed on to util­ity cus­tomers.

There was no statewide short­age of elec­tric­ity — not even close, ac­cord­ing to a Times anal­y­sis of fed­eral and state en­ergy data.

Even as the mer­cury climbed, con­sumers used 44,184 megawatts Tues­day — 3,656 fewer than the fore­cast. But the sys­tem can gen­er­ate about 71,000 megawatts, which means there was 38% un­used ca­pac­ity. That’s well above the 15% re­serve re­quired by the state for emer­gen­cies.

Some en­ergy ex­perts said the flex alert was un­nec­es­sar­ily alarmist.

“The no­tion that the sky is fall­ing is a lit­tle be­wil­der­ing to us,” said Robert McCul­lough, of Ore­gonbased McCul­lough Re­search, who works as a con­sul­tant for power com­pa­nies.

“There’s no ques­tion that flex alerts will at­tract peo­ple’s at­ten­tion,” he said. But with ac­tual usage at times fall­ing as much as 10% be­low Cal-ISO’s fore­cast, he said some­one failed to seriously an­a­lyze the data. “I would hate to re­port into the util­ity ex­ec­u­tive with that in­for­ma­tion. This would be a ca­reerend­ing mo­ment.”

Robert Freehling, an en­ergy pol­icy con­sul­tant who has done work for the Sacra­mento Mu­nic­i­pal Util­ity Dis­trict and the Im­pe­rial Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict, also ques­tioned the grid op­er­a­tor’s com­puter mod­els and analy­ses.

“There’s been a very heavy over­es­ti­ma­tion of de­mand,” he said, not­ing that the statewide flex alert “cer­tainly raised eye­brows.”

Even the util­ity compa- nies said that the in­creased de­mand caused by ris­ing tem­per­a­tures had not cre­ated an en­ergy short­age.

“We’re look­ing at nor­mal op­er­a­tions,” Robert Laf­foon-Vil­le­gas, a spokesman for South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son Co., said as he gave his com­pany’s re­port dur­ing a media call Tues­day.

Pa­cific Gas & Electric Co. was hit the hard­est with some 377,000 cus­tomers in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area out of power at some point through Thursday, said Lynsey Paulo, a spokes­woman for PG&E. By Thursday af­ter­noon, power out­ages had been re­duced to typ­i­cal daily lev­els, she said.

But the source of the out­age wasn’t con­sumers drain­ing the power sup­ply nor a lack of power plants.

“This is not an en­ergy sup­ply is­sue at all,” Paulo said. “Trans­former fail­ure has been the No. 1 cause for heat-re­lated fail­ure for us.”

No one ques­tions PG&E’s trans­former trou­bles in the Bay Area, but crit­ics said the prob­lem was lo­cal­ized and didn’t re­quire the statewide alert.

Cal-ISO says it’s com­pli­cated. Spokes­woman Anne Gon­za­les de­fended the grid op­er­a­tor’s de­ci­sion to call the first flex alert of the year.

She said the western heat wave is being de­scribed as the worst in 11 years. Cal-ISO must con­sider not only the heat it­self but also the po­ten­tial for wild­fires to dis­rupt the elec­tri­cal grid at the same time some power plants might be off­line, she said.

“We plan for the peaks and worst-case sce­nar­ios dur­ing a heat wave, know­ing that one wild­fire can make all the dif­fer­ence in trans­mis­sion,” Gon­za­les said.

The flex alert, Gon­za­les said, is one way to help en­sure ad­e­quate sup­ply. It is sim­ply ask­ing con­sumers to help pre­vent strain on the sys­tem and avoid po­ten­tial prob­lems.

“We call flex alerts af­ter con­sid­er­a­tion to all im­pacts, in­clud­ing cost, econ­omy, health and safety, and over­all re­li­a­bil­ity,” Gon­za­les said.

When a flex alert is is­sued, con­sumers are asked to vol­un­tar­ily cut back elec­tric­ity use dur­ing peak hours, typ­i­cally be­tween 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Although Edi­son re­ported typ­i­cal op­er­a­tions, it did take some added pre­cau­tions — such as bring­ing plants back online that were down for main­te­nance in desert ar­eas. And Edi­son crews were work­ing to re­store service to cus­tomers af­fected by wild­fires, Vil­le­gas said.

Cal-ISO ac­knowl­edged dur­ing the media call Tues­day that this heat wave did not re­quire the height­ened mea­sures de­vel­oped last sum­mer in re­sponse to con­cerns about en­ergy short­ages in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The Los Angeles area is on guard as it moves through its sec­ond sum­mer with­out the trou­bled Aliso Canyon nat­u­ral gas stor­age plant, the largest hold­ing fa­cil­ity for the fuel in the state.

The stor­age plant, op­er­ated by South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Gas Co., was taken off­line af­ter one of the com­pany’s 115 wells leaked, forc­ing thou­sands of res­i­dents in nearby Porter Ranch from their homes. The util­ity sealed the leak and closed the well in Fe­bru­ary 2016, but it can’t re­plen­ish nat­u­ral gas sup­plies in the stor­age fa­cil­ity un­til it is deemed safe.

With­out Aliso Canyon, util­i­ties, reg­u­la­tors and CalISO worry that if a lengthy heat wave en­gulfs the re­gion, there won’t be enough fuel to power lights and air con­di­tion­ers or to keep gas pi­lot lights lit.

The util­ity in­dus­try warned of up to 14 days of black­outs last sum­mer with­out Aliso Canyon — a pre­dic­tion that never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

To McCul­lough and oth­ers, Cal-ISO’s warn­ings this week amount to an ex­pen­sive mis­cal­cu­la­tion.

On Tues­day, for ex­am­ple, elec­tric­ity prices shot from the typ­i­cal $50 per megawatt-hour to $200 to $300 per megawatt-hour as the whole­sale market re­acted to news of an­tic­i­pated in­creased de­mand. Some of that dif­fer­ence will ul­ti­mately be passed on to con­sumers.

“This is akin to cry­ing wolf,” McCul­lough said. “I don’t see any emergency.”

Allen J. Sch­aben Los Angeles Times

THIS WEEK’S heat wave led the Cal­i­for­nia elec­tri­cal grid op­er­a­tor to call a f lex alert, but the statewide en­ergy de­mand never reached fore­cast lev­els.

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