Newsom's looming threat: Summer blackouts

In this October 24, 2019 file photo, a sign at the entrance to the drive-through at Starbucks warns customers that the store is closed due to a power outage in Paradise, Calif. Rich Pedroncelli, File / AP Photo

SACRAMENTO – California Governor Gavin Newsom is on track to beat the recall this fall – if only he can make it through the summer.

A deepening drought and the potential for heat waves threaten to create a new political nightmare for Newsom: widespread power outages. The state network operator is already warning of possible power outages in August and September, not long before voters will decide his fate in a Republican recall election.

State officials – still thinking about last summer’s outages – know full well that a second straight year of blackouts could be detrimental to Newsom, especially near the election. A hot summer with low hydropower supplies could lead them to look for more electricity to stave off the worst-case scenario.

“Even if we miss out on a few megawatts,” said Severin Borenstein, an economist at UC Berkeley and a Newsom representative for the state network operator.

Newsom, a Democrat, is on the rise this month with the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the country and a staggering budget surplus of $ 76 billion that has enabled him to cash out millions of potential voters. But he risks fueling the ire of voters if he loses control of the network again.

A heat wave in mid-August last year forced power outages for more than 800,000 customers in two nights. The state was so unprepared that officials from energy agencies called individual companies asking them to reduce their electricity needs and send excess energy back into the grid.

The power outages last year were relatively minor and were dwarfed by the intended power outages to avoid wildfires that occur regularly during the California summers, as well as the two-week outage in Texas last February. But the episode brought back memories of the state’s 2000-01 energy crisis that overthrew a governor – and now that a recall election looms, the comparisons are even clearer.

“People have very limited patience when they just can’t flip a switch and turn the lights on,” said Steven Maviglio, who served as press secretary for Governor Gray Davis before he was removed in 2003. Even Gray Davis was because we were first and foremost a taste had on it. He said he would fix it and if it happens again he may have to pay the price. “

Government agencies have already taken steps to prevent blackouts this summer by keeping natural gas facilities online, increasing energy storage, and promoting conservation. However, they acknowledge that there is still a risk, especially when temperatures rise in August and September like last year.

The grid operator released a report on Wednesday that predicts a 12 percent chance of blackouts if the state’s three largest utilities don’t get enough imported power from neighboring states and public utilities – a likely scenario given that other western states often experience similar summer conditions .

A Newsom bureau spokesman admitted that network reliability had become more difficult, but said that Californians had learned to shift their energy use during extreme weather events and that the state had increased its supply.

“While this summer will bring a lot of uncertainty, network managers are now preparing for the worst and the state has maximized supply and developed new demand reduction programs to avoid disruptions,” said Erin Mellon, the spokeswoman.

State officials have made it clear that avoiding power outages is a priority for Newsom.

“He understands that we are working very hard to keep the lights on,” Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told reporters this month. “He knows and we know that we will do everything we can for the people of California.”

Newsom, she added, was making “each of us” aware of “the importance of it”.

The state has added enough new capacity since last summer to supply up to 3.2 million households with electricity. It has approved more than 60 new projects that will be online by August such as: B. Natural gas, and published public notices calling for conservation and increased incentives for businesses to reduce their use in grid emergencies.

But the state also faces new obstacles. The hydropower supply, which helps offset the slumps in solar energy, is lower due to the drought, and electricity needs could be higher than last year as companies resume operations after a year of lockdown.

“We’re running to stay in place, and it may be worse because we don’t have the resources we had last year in terms of available hydropower,” said Michael Wara, director of climate and energy policy the Stanford University program.

Some see pitfalls in the state’s response. A previous state regulator warns that ordering utilities to buy more capacity before this summer, as the state has done, will increase utility bills.

“We’re going to have exceptional rates,” said Loretta Lynch, who served as President of the Public Utilities Commission during the 2000-01 energy crisis. “That, too, is a serious political obligation to any governor.”

California’s power grid also faces longer-term challenges, including one counterintuitive problem: a flood of solar energy a day. When the sun goes down, natural gas power plants or other fast-reacting resources are needed to deliver electricity quickly. In response to objections from environmentalists, state officials extended the lifespan of four aging assets over the past year to help maintain network reliability.

Further blackouts would further undermine the state’s push for renewable energies.

“It would be a political problem for Newsom, it would be a political problem for renewable energy, it would be a political problem for the widespread adoption of green technologies,” said Borenstein.

Last year, when they were racing to avoid additional outages, Newsom’s office urged ports to convert docked ships from onshore power to motor power to free up supplies and bypass government air pollution regulations.

Port officials say they are ready to help again. “When the administration reaches out to us again, we want to be prepared for the request,” said David Libatique, deputy general manager for the Port of Los Angeles.

“We have what we have for 2021,” said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a think tank in Sacramento. “There’s not much time left to do much more.”

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