Will blackouts darken Calif. this summer?

May 1, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

California could be headed into another “perfect storm” of coincidental events that may result in an electricity shortage during the hot months of July, August and September.

San Diego Gas & Electric is reported to be finalizing an agreement with the U.S. Navy to reduce power use at the Navy’s San Diego-area bases in the event of a power shortage this summer. 

The Navy is SDG&E’s largest customer. The agreement being arranged with the Navy would free up power to offset grid losses due to the unplanned shut down of nuclear power plants in California. This is the first time such an arrangement has been made with San Diego-area military bases.

Of concern is the long-term outage of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station due to mechanical problems. San Onofre can generate power for 1.4 million homes. Additionally, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant along the central coast of California has been shut down, reportedly due to jellyfish clogging the ocean water intake used to cool the boilers. 

Authorities disagree in newspapers about the risk of rolling blackouts this summer. But the Independent System Operatorserves as the central operator for the state electric grid.  The ISO said that, while statewide reserves are fine, local and regional shortages could emerge. Of particular concern is the San Diego area due to the San Onofre shutdown.

San Diego Hit by Blackout Nov. 8, 2011

The same area was hit by a blackout on Nov. 8, 2011, reportedly due to human error by a utility worker at an electrical substation in Arizona. Some authorities say that, even with the error, the grid should have not failed. 

A report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and National Electric Reliability Commission as to the causes of the blackout has not been released yet. Fortunately, the Nov. 8 outage was contained within the San Diego region, although the problem started in another region to the east.  The electric grid is set up to contain outages within each region. That apparently failed in the San Diego blackout.

The sequence of events is known. But if the cause cannot be found, this will add a further risk of uncertainty to the San Diego region. A fact in the Nov. 8 outage is that failure could not be contained in the Arizona grid and spread to San Diego. This raises a question as to whether other areas of California than San Diego could be susceptible to rolling blackouts this summer, even if power reserves are ample. 

Power Outages Have Risen 350 Percent Since 2007

Power outages affecting 50,000 people or more have been growing over the past decade in North America.  But outages really took off from 2007 to 2011 when outages increased from 100 to 350 per year.

Electric companies have interruptible power service agreements with large industries to shut down during blackouts so that homes, hospitals and transit systems are not affected.  Large industrial users of electricity serve as shadow power plants when they shut down and allow power to be freed up for residential customers.

With California reportedly losing at least 254 businesses in 2011 and 204 in 2010, according to one tally, the number of industries with interruptible service agreements has probably fallen. This should have freed up power possibly to offset any losses from the shutdown of San Onofre.  But that doesn’t seem to have sufficiently made enough additional power capacity available.

Events Have Turned Fast on Power Planners

Southern California is working fast to get back into service two gas-fired power plants in Huntington Beach that were mothballed last year.  This indicates how fast events have turned around on electric capacity planners. 

To comply with regulations, both of the decommissioned Huntington Beach gas power plants had their gas lines severed and three-foot holes were cut in the boilers.

SDG&E is also accelerating the build out of the Sunrise Power Transmission Link into San Diego.  This will bring 1,000 megawatts of power from Imperial County to San Diego County over a 230/500 Kilovolt power line spanning 117-miles.  One problem with this new transmission line is that the electrons transmitted will be from renewable energy projects in Imperial County that cannot be counted on in a blackout.

Wind and solar power plants cannot be depended on for base load power in the event of an outage or rolling blackouts.  California is in the process of shifting 33 percent of its power to alternative energy such as wind and solar power.

A power outage may be a trigger for any civil disturbances anticipated for this summer prior to national elections. The Los Angeles Times has been running a series of suggestive articles on prior riots.  The San Diego and Los Angeles areas could be in for a long hot summer.

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