California Leaders Credit Cellphone Alert for Sudden Conservation

Source: By Jill Cowan, Shawn Hubler and Ivan Penn, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, September 8, 2022

Power lines in Cathedral City, Calif., during the heat wave on Tuesday.
Alex Welsh for The New York Times

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Standing in the shade of a tall hedge outside the Beverly Hilton hotel and sweating in the relentless heat, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said on Wednesday that emergency cellphone alerts the evening before that had urged Californians to conserve energy were instrumental in pulling the state’s heat-strained power grid back from the brink.

The alert to about 27 million cellphones — accompanied by a blaring alarm of the sort that precedes Amber Alerts and natural disaster warnings — was followed within moments by a major drop in use, roughly 2,600 megawatts within 45 minutes, according to state energy use figures.

“This has been a historic, unprecedented, record-breaking week,” Mr. Newsom told reporters after speaking at a tech conference. “Had it not been for the efforts of literally millions of Californians, just to turn down a light or turn down a thermostat at night, or not using a large appliance, we would not be in the position we are today.”

The state has begged energy users for a week to curtail their power use, particularly between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., when the system is most challenged. But consumer compliance with daily “flex alerts” had bent the curve only slightly, Elliot Mainzer, the chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, which manages most of the state’s power grid, said at a separate news conference.

It is not clear exactly how much of the sudden drop was attributable to the cellphone alert, but state leaders believe it played a significant role. Just how much impact it had will take further analysis, given the various factors at play.

Investments in the energy infrastructure since the state’s last blackouts in 2020 have significantly increased the capacity of the system, Mr. Mainzer said, and the state had worked assiduously to improve communication with the public. But the extreme heat encompassing the West, and suffocating the state, has been an “extraordinary” challenge, he said.

The state was besieged Tuesday by triple-digit temperatures, and many inland areas in Northern California soared above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Several cities set heat records, including Sacramento at 116 degrees and Napa at 114.

By Tuesday afternoon, electricity demand stood at a record peak of more than 52,000 megawatts, and the state’s resources were so tapped out that grid officials had instructed utility providers to prepare for rolling blackouts.

“We were down to the last gallon,” Mr. Mainzer said, comparing the state’s grid with a car that had nearly run out of gas.

System demand figures released by the system operator showed that demand had barely budged at 4 p.m., when Tuesday’s “flex alert” started, and had actually started to rise again by about 5 p.m. About 15 minutes later, grid operators told utility officials to prepare for an order to begin rolling outages, and use fell slightly.

Five small cities in Northern California misunderstood the order and cut power to a few thousand households, Mr. Mainzer said, but the few dozen megawatts they removed from the system were not sufficient to make a significant difference.

Then came the text: “Power interruptions may occur unless you take action.”

“Within moments, we saw a significant amount of load reduction showing up, to the tune of approximately 2,000 megawatts over the next 20 to 30 minutes,” Mr. Mainzer said.

He added, however, that the system operator is unlikely to use the cellphone alert often, lest Californians start to ignore it. The governor agreed that diminishing returns were a risk.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to do that again,” Mr. Newsom said. “If we do do that again, please take it seriously.”

Mr. Newsom said there was more work to be done, as forecasts predicted the heat would extend through Friday.

“Everybody’s done an incredible job getting us through this, and we’ll do our part to make sure we never have to go through this again,” he said. He cited the State Legislature’s passage of $4.2 billion to add 4,000 megawatts of power to the state’s supply and to allocate billions of dollars of state money to better adapt to climate change.

The governor said his newfound support for keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open — after he had sought its closure — was a recognition that California needed more electricity because of climate change.

“Mother Nature’s fury is now here,” Mr. Newsom said.

He described Diablo Canyon as an “insurance policy” that the state wouldn’t close until it was confident that enough power could be supplied without the plant, which is on the Central Coast.

Mr. Newsom is running for re-election in November, but he has such a substantial advantage that he has scarcely focused on his opponent, the Republican state lawmaker Brian Dahle. Instead, he has spent time attacking Republican governors in other states, particularly on abortion and gun laws.

California Republicans tried this week to seize on the state’s precarious energy situation to attack the Democratic governor, blaming him for doing too little to shore up the state’s electricity supply.

“It appears the only thing that staved off rolling blackouts yesterday was a frantic emergency text telling everyone to stop using power,” State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican congressional candidate, said Wednesday on Twitter. “This is not a sustainable strategy.”

Separately, Mr. Newsom swatted away Republican criticism that his plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035 could add to the stress by introducing thousands more electric cars to the state’s roads — and its power grid. The state’s “flex alerts” ask electric vehicle owners not to recharge between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., which prompted conservatives to question last week how that squared with the 2035 mandate.

Mr. Newsom said that electric vehicles currently account for 0.4 percent of electricity use in the state and that projections show that would increase to 4 percent by 2035, with the new rules. In the meantime, he said, the state will continue to add more sources of energy.