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After last summer’s blackouts, utilities commission orders additional power

Looking to avoid a repeat of the pair of blackouts last August that left nearly a half-million customers across the state without electricity, the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday directed the state’s big three power companies to line up additional sources of energy this summer.

“Customers deserve a reliable grid and they deserve a regulatory body that will be mobilized to do everything in its power to ensure that we have one,” said Marybel Batjer, president of the commission, known as the CPUC for short. “I view this as both my biggest priority and our basic responsibility,”

The 4-0 vote directs San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric to seek energy contracts to supply California’s electric grid with extra capacity to meet increased demand at critical peak periods when temperatures soar and people crank up their air conditioners.

“There is not a day to waste,” Batjer said. “Summer is literally around the corner, if we are speaking in regulatory framework timelines.”

The cost coming from procuring more power will be passed on to the ratepayers of each of the respective utilities.

Each utility has until the beginning of next week to submit their proposals to the commission, which will review them before signing off on them.

“Over the past several months, SDG&E has been working diligently — and with a sense of urgency — to ensure we have additional resources in place ahead of summer,” SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao said in an email, adding the utility is “on track” to meet the commission’s requirements and have the additional power online this summer.

SDG&E officials said it was too early to hazard a guess regarding how much more their customers will pay for the extra procurements.

In the 19-page decision adopted Thursday, the commission said it tried to strike a balance between having an “over-procurement” that would lead to higher bills and running the risk of being short of megawatts. It opted to take a “least-regrets” approach.

A number of consumer and environmental groups opposed the CPUC’s decision, saying California’s power grid has enough resources at its disposal to avoid a repeat of last year and that the additions would lead to an increase in natural gas procurements.

“The August 2020 blackouts should have been the final straw to finally move beyond fossil fuels, not an excuse to prop up the aging gas fleet and increase our dependence on it,” said Luis Amezcua of the Sierra Club.

Last year’s statewide outages came as a searing heat wave settled for days over virtually all of California. As energy demand spiked on Aug. 14 and 15, the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, — which manages the grid for about 80 percent of the state — was unable to maintain a 6 percent minimum in contingency reserves.

The CAISO called a Stage 3 Emergency both days, instructing utilities to shed load until the margins were restored.

The blackout on Aug. 14 affected 491,600 customers statewide, including 59,000 in SDG&E’s service territory, who lost power for up to an hour. The outage on Aug. 15 impacted 321,000 customers, including 17,000 served by SDG&E.

It marked the first time since 2001 that Californians endured rolling blackouts. Just a couple of weeks later, over the Labor Day weekend, another bout of extreme heat nearly led to a repeat.

After being called on the carpet by an angry Gov. Gavin Newsom, the CPUC, the CAISO and the California Energy Commission released a root cause analysis that blamed a host of reasons for the blackouts, most related to the record-high temperatures.

Energy imports from other states, for example, were greatly reduced because the heat covered the West. With their own customers sweltering, grid operators in neighboring states held on to their own sources of power.

In addition, within days of the August outages, the CAISO learned a software glitch in what is called the Residual Unit Commitment process inadvertently led to several thousand megawatts of exports flowing out of California to other states during the critical hours of the outages. The problem has since been fixed.

In a late revision to its decision, the CPUC called on the CAISO to make sure that the additional resources procured as a result of Thursday’s vote do not get exported elsewhere.

Bill Powers of the San Diego-based Protect Our Communities Foundation said the megawatts from the inadvertent exports — combined with power from gas plants that should have been running at the time, as well as other resources — means Thursday’s vote was unnecessary.

“There was so much capacity that we should have had at our fingertips that we didn’t,” Powers said. “The reason we had those blackouts is (the CAISO’s) mismanagement of the ample supply resources they had at their disposal, period.”

While Thursday’s vote concentrated on adding supply, Batjer said next month the commission will look at steps to reduce energy demand.

“We can’t solve this summer’s problem with only demand-side resources or only supply-side resources,” Batjer said. “We need both … We need to keep options on the table for this summer.”

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