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    Grid teeters, holds; some shut off in error


    September 8, 2022 - Jessica Flores and Claire Hao

     

      As California's grid operator braced for another day of extreme demand on Thursday due to the historic heat wave, officials vowed to communicate better to avoid accidental outages that affected thousands of Bay Area residents on Tuesday night. Tuesday saw record-setting demand on the California grid, which came to the brink of rolling blackouts as power plants strained to keep up with air conditioning needs -- but ultimately squeaked through without them. Some Northern California cities had blackouts anyway on Tuesday, however, in a mistake that appeared to stem from a miscommunication between a utility group and the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state grid. At least three Bay Area cities initiated rotating outages Tuesday night -- Alameda, Healdsburg and Palo Alto. Each is a member of the Northern California Power Agency, or NCPA, a not-for-profit joint powers authority. Those outages were not ordered by the grid operator, California ISO CEO Elliot Mainzer said Wednesday on a media call. He said the NCPA member outages resulted from confusion and misunderstanding. "These are situations that obviously happened very infrequently, and there was a lot happening on the grid for everybody last night. So, we'll double down on the communication to make sure that doesn't happen again," Mainzer said. California ISO contacted the NCPA's dispatch center at 5:53 p.m. "with an order our dispatcher understood as a request to shed 46.02 MW of load," according to an NCPA statement issued Wednesday afternoon. "Once the outages had been initiated, our dispatcher contacted the CAISO to inform them that the curtailment action had been undertaken, and was then notified there had been a misunderstanding of the initial order. At that time, we immediately began the process of returning the load back onto the system," the NCPA statement read. The NCPA said it had initiated an internal inquiry and that "it is important to note" that the details of the emergency alert system used by the grid operator had recently changed. It said its member utilities' outages "may have ultimately helped prevent heat-related implications for the state's overly stressed grid," appearing to suggest that the accidental rotating outages may have helped the state's grid operator avoid intentional rotating outages, which are triggered when power demand exceeds supply. But when asked Wednesday morning if the inadvertent outages might have helped to keep the grid afloat, Mainzer replied: "Absolutely not." Instead, he said the drop in demand after the state sent out an emergency text alert around 5:45 p.m. asking Californians to conserve power was enough to bring the grid back from the brink of needing rotating outages. Lodi, in San Joaquin County, is a member of the NCPA and also initiated outages. Resident Larry Whitted was one of thousands of customers affected. Whitted said he received a text message about 10 minutes after the power went out that stated: "CAISO declared system emergency. Lodi required to shed load. One (1) hour power outage will occur in your area within 30 min. Medical emergencies, call 911." His power was out for about 45 minutes, Whitted said. While he had expected a potential outage and felt that the outage was "no problem for us," Whitted said he was irked by media reports and official statements claiming that California saw no rotating outages Tuesday night. "Gavin Newsom tweeted that there were no emergency outages, but I know there was because I was in one of them," Whitted said. California ISO said at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that electricity supplies were running low amid unprecedented demand as California's record-breaking heat wave strained the grid. The Independent System Operator moved into Stage 3 emergency operations, allowing it to order utilities to initiate shutdowns if necessary. Further strains on the power grid were occurring Wednesday, when peak demand was forecast at 51,243 megawatts -- not too far off Tuesday's record of 52,061 megawatts. (Going over 50,000 megawatts is extremely rare.) Another Flex Alert asking residents to save electricity has been issued for 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday's demand is also expected to peak at well above 50,000 megawatts. NCPA members include Lodi, Alameda, Healdsburg, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Biggs, Gridley, Lompoc, Redding, Roseville, Shasta Lake and Ukiah. On Tuesday night, Alameda said in a Facebook post that the California ISO "declared a Level 3 alert from 6-8pm tonight, which starts our rolling outages. We had to shut down 2 circuits, Marina Village and East End, and outages will last for 45-60 minutes." A second hour of shut-offs on Bay Farm Island was canceled, the city utility said. Alameda Municipal Power released a statement Wednesday morning that said the NCPA instructed Alameda to shed load around 5:45 p.m., resulting in power outages for 1,400 customers from 6:05 p.m. to 7:05 p.m. "If NCPA instructs us to drop load, AMP must act," the statement read. "In conjunction with the NCPA working with the CAISO, we are working to clarify procedures to ensure unnecessary outages do not occur moving forward," the statement read. The city of Healdsburg said around 6:20 p.m. Tuesday it had been directed by California ISO to turn off power for around one hour. About 90 minutes later, the city said power outages were over due to lower system loads. Palo Alto Utilities, the city's municipal operator, said around 6:30 p.m. that power was shut off in response to the state efforts meant to reduce power demand. The agency said around 1,700 customers in the Midtown, Old Palo Alto and Industrial Park areas were affected by the outage. About half an hour later, the utility said power was restored after California ISO allowed it. Jordan Cowman, a spokesperson for Palo Alto Utilities, said Wednesday they were one of several utilities that were contacted and authorized to begin the shut-offs. He said he believes the NCPA and California ISO were working together but did not say who Palo Alto Utilities received the authorization from. "We (shut off power) to the amount requested of our utility and then we got the all-clear," said Cowman. Lodi said its power agency, Lodi Electric, was asked to shed load at 6 p.m. Tuesday, and subsequently cut power to 1,372 customers in several neighborhoods at 6:20 p.m. Power was turned back on just after 7 p.m., after the NCPA told Lodi "that we could restore power and that we were on standby," according to Mary Campbell, City of Lodi public information officer. But at 8:30 p.m., Lodi officials said on the city's Facebook page, they learned that the "load shed order to Lodi was in error." "NCPA informed Lodi Electric that there was a communication error between them and Cal ISO that caused NCPA to issue the order to Lodi and other NCPA members," the city said. Some residents across California, across many utilities including Pacific Gas and Electric Co., have also experienced unplanned outages during the heat wave as the extremely hot temperatures cause power equipment like transformers to fail. These are different from rotating blackouts or pre-planned outages to reduce wildfire risk. Jessica Flores (she/her) and Claire Hao are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: jessica.flores@sfchronicle.com, claire.hao@sfchronicle.com, Twitter: @jesssmflores, @clairehao_

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