How Did Southern California Keep the Lights on During an Historic Heatwave? We Need to Know.
On June 20 and 21, temperatures across the Southwest hit record triple digits. It was a scorching way to start the summer. For Southern Californians, early arrival of extreme heat tested the region’s already compromised electricity system: Residents braced for rolling blackouts as the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility (one of the primary sources of power generation in the region) was offline after a disastrous methane leak last winter. Aliso will remain offline until Southern California Gas Company can assure regulators, legislators, and the community that it can be operated safely and efficiently.
The heatwave was further complicated by devastating wildfires to the north and southwest, but the region was ultimately able to emerge from the threat relatively unscathed. Although thousands of residents dealt with short-term outages, rolling blackouts – reminders of California’s dramatic energy crisis of the early 2000s – never came and the region was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
During the heatwave, focus was rightly on keeping the system running. But now it’s time to look at how we were able to meet historic electricity demand without the system crashing, and how this will inform power providers in the months ahead.
How did grid operators and power providers meet historic demand?
On June 20, energy load across Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s (LADWP) service area and the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) – which runs the state’s bulk electric power system, transmission lines, and electricity market – hit 51,000 MW (6,000 MW for LADWP’s service area). That’s a record for both grids and at least 9,000 MW more than the electricity demand on the same day in recent years.
These numbers raise some important questions: With the Aliso facilities offline, just how did grid operators and providers meet this historic demand? Was demand met with clean and affordable resources, or dirty, expensive ones? And, how will this event inform future responses later this summer, when heatwaves are expected to revisit Southern California?
There are certainly a few things we do know.
Utilities and CAISO aggressively promoted Flex Alert advisories, urging customers to shift usage away from peak times of the day and providing conservation tips like raising the AC a few degrees. Ever increasing amounts of local solar and renewables on the grid, driven in part by the California’s landmark SB 350 law, and a late sunset (it was the day before the summer solstice), indicate renewables played a role.
It is also likely gas marketers, power plants, and utilities engaged in new and unprecedented levels of coordination for electricity system balancing – working under new rules CAISO passed just weeks before.
It’s also possible LADWP was able to manage stress on the grid by implementing a new demand response program with a select few commercial and industrial customers. Demand response is a conservation tool that rewards customers who shift some of their energy use away from peak times. As stated in LADWP’s press release on June 21st, the last day of the historic heatwave, General Manager Marcie Edwards said:
“We greatly appreciate our customers’ enthusiasm for this program and willingness to partner with us in reducing the risk of outages [this] summer. We have introduced the program to several groups of large commercial customers over the past few weeks and received a positive response.”
Additionally, based on conversations Environmental Defense Fund has had with LADWP and the mayor’s office, we know of certain risky resources that were considered, but not ultimately called upon. For instance, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates regional air quality standards, authorized LADWP to power up local power plants with polluting diesel generators, though the utility likely didn’t use them during the heatwave. We also know a modest amount of gas remained in the Aliso facility as backup – though, it also wasn’t used.
And with all this coordination, conservation, and emergency backup, luck still probably had something to do with it, too. Even with the sizable challenges, it appears that no other complicating event occurred (like powerline and gas pipeline problems that are predictable in frequency, but unpredictable in time and location).
Why these answers matter
Getting the full picture of how regulators and power providers responded – with what resources and at what cost – is important for customers who want to know the lights stayed on without compromising their health and environment. If providers were able to rely on renewables, demand response, energy conservation marketing, and effective system balancing coordination, then that’s a positive and informative story worth spreading.
These kinds of stress tests hold lessons on what other measures work – or don’t work. What types of communication, customer service, and quick, cheap demand reductions were most successful in engaging residents?
Well before the heatwave, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) authorized SCE to pursue large-scale emergency energy storage in the form of batteries, double down on energy efficiency programs, and stretch demand response to meet the needs of customers.
With all that activity and new resources available, we need to know what tactics SCE deployed during the recent heatwave, and what the roll-out plan is for hot days down the road.
In late June, the CPUC released a scenario analysis that, while more positive than previous reports, still predicts the possibility of summer blackouts if steps like shifting generation outside the L.A. basin aren’t taken and Aliso resources cannot be safely and reliably utilized. With a system still at risk, the lessons from the recent historic heatwave are ever more critical.
The new normal
Ordinarily, the heat arrives in Southern California in August and September. Unfortunately, this episode portends some stark possible realities. Local climatologists are pointing to a new normal for the region, with rising temperatures over a longer summer period and more events like the June heatwave.