With New Blackouts Looming, Newsom Orders Investigation of Heat Wave Power Outages

A man sits under electrical transmission lines in Redondo Beach on Aug. 16, 2020. PG&E blacked out power to about 220,000 customers on Friday and Saturday evenings as the state grappled with a surge in power demand amid a widespread heat wave. (APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

Update, 10:25 p.m. Monday: Despite an afternoon and evening of advisories from the state's power grid manager that widespread rotating outages were imminent because of excessive electrical demand and a shortage of supply, no forced blackouts were conducted Monday.

The California Independent System Operator said no rolling outages were necessary because of cooler than expected temperatures in some parts of the state and because pleas for conservation appeared to be effective.

The agency had declared a Stage 2 power emergency, meaning reserve generating capacity was close to being exhausted, at 3:30 p.m. The emergency notice was canceled a little more than four hours later.

Monday's power emergency came after rotating outages were ordered in parts of the state Friday and Saturday evenings because of a dangerously low level of reserve power.

The power agency, PG&E, Gov. Gavin Newsom and others are cautioning that with the statewide heat wave expected to continue through at least Wednesday night, further blackouts will be avoided only if Californians continue efforts to conserve power.

The California ISO is forecasting record demand Tuesday.

Original post, last updated 6:30 p.m. Monday

Gov. Gavin Newsom called Monday for an investigation into why the agency that manages the state's power grid imposed two nights of rolling blackouts over the weekend.

Newsom's directive was accompanied by an emergency proclamation allowing some large energy users, including ships anchored in the state's ports, to use generator power instead of drawing electricity from the state's overstretched grid.

Even as the governor explained his directives during a noon media briefing, officials with the California Independent System Operator were saying in a separate public meeting that rotating power outages were likely in some parts of the state as early as 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday.

The agency said in a media briefing early Monday afternoon that as many as 3.3 million utility customers statewide could be affected later in the day by rotating blackouts, with outages for individual customers lasting one to two hours.

That outages would be a replay on a much larger scale of rolling blackouts that CAISO ordered Friday and Saturday evening as the agency struggled to contend with a surge in power demand amid a siege of extremely high temperatures across most of the state.

PG&E blacked out about 220,000 customers on both evenings as part of the rotating outages. Newsom said Monday that the power interruptions reflect poorly on the state.

"These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in a letter to Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Stephen Berberich, president and CEO of the independent system operator, and David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission.

“Residents, communities and other governmental organizations did not receive sufficient warning that these de-energizations could occur," Newsom wrote. "Collectively, energy regulators failed to anticipate this event and to take necessary actions to ensure reliable power to Californians. This cannot stand. California residents and businesses deserve better from their government.”

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Newsom, noting that he was not notified until “moments before” outages began on Friday and Saturday evenings, said “grid operators were caught flat footed, unable to avert disruptive blackouts and to adequately warn the public."

Power demand will be at or above record levels Monday and Tuesday as the hot weather continues.

On Sunday, CAISO called for widespread electricity conservation through Wednesday night and cautioned businesses and residents about "the likelihood of power outages during the late afternoon and evening hours."

This story will be updated.