Could California’s Summer Rolling Blackouts Happen in the Northwest?

Last August, as an intense heat wave smothered Western states, California’s electricity grid operator was forced to implement two rotating outages that disrupted service to nearly a million customers. The last time rolling blackouts occurred in the state was during the West Coast energy crisis in 2001. After some initial finger pointing and confusion, a recent preliminary analysis by the California Independent System Operator, the California Public Utility Commission, and the California Energy Commission identified three main factors that led to the CAISO’s action:

  • A climate change-induced extreme heat storm across the West that spiked demand beyond current electricity demand planning targets
  • Growing amounts of renewable resources online, especially solar, that require other resources to help meet demand in the early evening hours when the sun goes down
  • Some practices in the day-ahead energy market exacerbated the supply challenges

Some of the recommendations to help prevent another shortfall include updating resource and planning targets, ensuring adequate generation and storage projects are online, and enhancing market practices so the actual balance of supply and demand is clear during stressed operating conditions.

How the Northwest Keeps the Lights On

Could the Northwest experience rolling blackouts? “Yes,” says John Fazio, senior power systems analyst. “And it almost happened in 2001.”

At that time, a convergence of bad circumstances–lagging resource development, drought conditions that reduced hydropower, and market manipulation by Enron—resulted in an energy crisis throughout the West. While California was the epicenter, soaring wholesale electricity prices were a reality for the entire Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. And while the region avoided major disruptions to service, the economic damage was devastating. The Bonneville Power Administration was forced to pay aluminum companies to shut down, a searing memory recounted by BPA’s administrator at the time, Steve Wright in a KGW article.

“We basically put 5,000 aluminum workers out of work. We shut down the aluminum industry because we didn’t have enough power to serve them,” said Wright.

There was an environmental cost as well as system operators reduced bypass spill, which helps fish navigate safely through the dams, at the John Day, The Dalles, and Bonneville projects to increase generation.

The experience spurred the region to conduct an annual assessment of the adequacy of the power supply five years out as an early warning system. While there’s no common industry standard for resource adequacy, the typical approach is to plan to have enough power so that the chance of a shortage occurs, on average, only once in 10 years.

The Northwest’s standard is higher since hydropower is still the dominant resource and low water years significantly impact generation. If the likelihood of having to take emergency actions (not necessarily curtailment) is more than 1 in 20 years (5 percent), the Council deems the power supply to be inadequate.

“No utility plans for 100 percent adequacy,” notes Fazio. “It would be too costly. We want to plan for the infrequent use of emergency actions.”

Unlike California, the Northwest does not have an independent system operator to ensure short-term adequacy needs. While the BPA fulfills that role to a degree, it’s up to individual utilities to make sure they will have enough resources to meet their loads. Also related to short-term planning is the work of the Northwest Power Pool, a nonprofit that helps coordinate electric grid operations in the Northwestern U.S. and Western Canada. The NWPP has been working to develop a resource adequacy program that would enable utilities to voluntarily share available resources when they’re needed in the region.

The Council’s regional power plan is focused on the long-term acquisition of new resources and integrates the Council’s resource adequacy assessment in planning for a reliable and affordable power supply.

Hotter Summers, More Renewables, and Meeting Peak Demand

Planning for a 20-year secure power supply has never been more challenging. Climate change is affecting electricity usage in fundamental ways. The Northwest, which has historically experienced its peak demand in the winter, is beginning to shift to a summer-peaking region, too. With coal plants retiring and growing wind and solar resources online, meeting capacity needs will continue to be a pressing issue.

“We’re entering an environment where there may be no market availability in the summer and we’ll be competing with California for resources,” notes Fazio.

The Council’s resource adequacy advisory committee will be exploring this and other critical concerns to help ensure that the lights stay on.

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