Could California’s summer rolling blackouts happen in the Northwest?
For two days in August, as an intense heat wave smothered Western states and drove electricity use to record levels, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages the state’s high-voltage electricity transmission grid, imposed rolling electricity outages that cut power to 813,000 customers. The reason, unlike more recent utility-imposed shut-offs in California, was not related to wildfires, but to inadequate supplies of power.
Could the Northwest be next?
The answer is yes, but we are working to make sure it doesn’t happen.
According to a preliminary analysis by CAISO, the rolling blackouts on Aug. 14 and 15, which lasted from about 8 minutes to more than two hours depending on location, were caused by high demand during a heat wave, inadequate supplies of backup power in California for reduced amounts of wind and solar generation, and power-marketing decisions just days before the blackouts that left the state with what the report called “exacerbated supply challenges.”
The last point is critical. When California ran low on power and had to impose blackouts, the Northwest was able to export large amounts of hydropower to help California through its crisis because we had a good water year and extra hydropower. But the Northwest will not have surplus power every year. In short, California got lucky in 2020.