As California struggles to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, wilting
heat and wildfires, it’s facing another dangerous crisis: blackouts.
As temperatures broke records across the state, California energy
officials announced the first rolling blackouts in the state since 2001
and warned that the state was bracing for what could be the largest power
outage it has ever seen, likely on Monday.
In an effort to prevent or limit power outages during this heat wave, the
California #ISO issued a statewide #FlexAlert for today – Wednesday, Aug.
19, from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Learn more: https://t.co/U5yYGRfQjT
— California ISO (@California_ISO) August 17, 2020
When asked about the number of Californians who will be impacted and how
it ranks historically, the President/CEO of the Independent Service
Operator — the non-profit that operates the state’s power grid — said he
wasn’t entirely sure.
“I can’t speak to historical comparisons,” said Steve Berberich. “I wasn’t
here during the energy crisis.”
When pressed by a reporter who had run the numbers and estimated that 3.3
million Californians will be impacted, Berberich assented that his
calculations were “Probably fairly accurate.”
In 2001, the San Jose Murcury News estimates power outages impacted 1.5
million people. Given that number, 3.3 million people without power would
be at least twice as large.
ISO officials said they were shutting down power to residents to prevent
events of an even greater magnitude.
“We avoid demand exceeding supply to ensure there’s not a widespread
system collapse,” said ISO Market Policy and Performance VP Mark
On Monday, officials said they expect blackouts to begin about 4 p.m. and
extend through at least 10 p.m. in 2 hour blocks for each affected area.
A big problem is a shortage of power that could be imported from utilities
in neighboring states. California has been able to bridge the gaps in
previous heat waves because it could bring in power. This time, though,
“we are facing diminished imports because the West is heating up,” said
Governor Gavin Newsom said the state was using “all the tools in the tool
kit” to meet demand. “We are likely to fall short,” he said, as oppressive
temperatures stress the state’s energy system that serves five million
households and businesses.
The National Weather Service warned of potentially record-breaking heat in
the L.A. area on Monday and Tuesday.
Very hot temperatures are forecast across #SoCal the next couple of days.
Numerous records could be broken Monday and Tuesday. #CAwx #LAHeat
— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) August 17, 2020
Newsom noted that temperatures in Death Valley reached 130 degrees Sunday,
a peak not hit since at least 1931, according to the National Weather
Service. As a point of reference, the hottest temperature ever officially
recorded on earth was 134 degrees, also in Death Valley, in 1913.
Newsom added that “rather extraordinary weather conditions” also have put
firefighters under enormous pressure as they battle wildfires across the
Newsom pointed to the state’s shift to renewable resources as part of the
reason for the supply shortage. Shutting down polluting gas power plants
has created gaps in the state’s energy supply, he said.
While the state remains committed to a greener future, Newsom said, “We
cannot sacrifice reliability” and promised that officials would be “much
more aggressive … in making sure that is the case.”
Big power users are being allowed to shift to backup sources and stored
energy that is typically restricted as state officials work to urgently
deploy more resources systemwide, according to the governor.
A statewide Flex Alert calling for residents to voluntarily conserve
electricity remains in effect through Wednesday. Officials are also urging
businesses statewide to restrict their usage. In some cases, the state is
asking business owners to support outreach to their customers about
conserving energy. Newsom named Telsa, a major manufacturer of electric
vehicles, as one of the businesses working closely with the state.
The California ISO issued the Flex Alert on Sunday, saying there is
insufficient energy to meet high consumer demand during the record-
breaking heat wave. To minimize the need for controlled outages, residents
were asked to use air conditioning early in the day and set
thermostats at 78 in the afternoon and evening hours, while avoiding the
use of major appliances between the hours of 3 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The alert followed blackouts Friday and Saturday that Newsom said came
The Governor yesterday convened an all-hands meeting with California
Independent System Operator (CAISO), the California Public Utilities
Commission (CPUC), the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California
Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and senior
administration officials and called the weekend service disruptions
Newsom announced Monday that he had signed an emergency proclamation to
free up energy capacity.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said Friday’s rolling
blackouts did not affect residents of the city. “We own our own power
plants and transmission lines and had enough supply to meet demand + req’d
reserve,” the department tweeted. “We encourage our customers to conserve
to help state grid and reduce strain on system.”
We can all do our part to conserve energy and help prevent service
interruptions during California's heatwave. ??
??? Set your A/C at 78° or higher
?? Avoid major appliance use
?? Turn off unnecessary lights
Pre-cool your home at 72° overnight & in the morning.
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) August 17, 2020
On Saturday, high temperatures increased electricity demand while one
power plant was down and wind power fell short, prompting a Stage 3
Electrical Emergency that lasted 20 minutes. It was called at 6:28 p.m.,
making rolling outages imminent or in progress, according to the
No major outages were reported Monday by Southern California Edison, but
peak power demand would likely trigger outages later in the day.
In a letter, the governor said the blackouts were called Friday and
Saturday without notice and demanded an investigation.
“Residents, communities and other governmental organizations did not
receive sufficient warning that these de-energizations could occur.
Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to
take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians,” Newsom
“This cannot stand,” said Newsom at his midday press conference.
“California residents and businesses deserve better from their
Berberich said the ISO did a poor job of warning residents, utilities “and
particularly the governor’s office” last weekend that blackouts were
“We own that and we’re sorry,” he said.
Power providers say a lack of supply from sources outside the state
contributed to the shortage, as other Western states struggled to meet
their own demand during the heat wave.
During his midday Monday news conference, the governor promised the
investigation would be swift and comprehensive.
The stakes are high for Newsom, who two weeks ago faced a failure of the
state’s coronavirus data system; the 2001 blackouts were widely seen to
have contributed to then-governor Grey Davis’s political demise. He was
recalled by voters in 2003.
City News Service contributed to this report.
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