Newsom’s looming threat: Summer blackouts

Source: By DEBRA KAHN and COLBY BERMEL, Politico • Posted: Monday, May 17, 2021

A sign at the entrance of the drive-thru at Starbucks warns customers the store is closed due to a power blackout in Paradise, Calif.

In this Oct. 24, 2019, file photo, a sign at the entrance of the drive-thru at Starbucks warns customers the store is closed due to a power blackout in Paradise, Calif. | Rich Pedroncelli, File/AP Photo

SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is on track to beat the recall this fall — if he can just get through the summer.

A deepening drought and potential for heat waves threaten to unleash a new political nightmare for Newsom: widespread power outages. The state’s grid operator is already warning of the possibility of rolling blackouts in August and September, not long before voters will decide his fate in a Republican-driven recall election.

State officials — with last summer’s outages still fresh in their minds — know well that a second straight year of blackouts could be damaging to Newsom, especially so close to the election. A hot summer with low hydropower supplies could send them scrambling for more electricity to stave off the worst-case scenario.

“Even if we end up a few megawatts short,” said Severin Borenstein, a UC Berkeley economist and a Newsom appointee to the state’s grid operator, “I have a feeling that any rolling blackouts will be considered a major political hit.”

Newsom, a Democrat, is riding high this month with California’s lowest-in-the-nation coronavirus infection rates and a breathtaking $76 billion budget surplus that has allowed him to dole out cash to millions of potential voters. But he risks stoking voters’ ire if he loses control of the grid again.

A mid-August heat wave last year forced power cuts to more than 800,000 customers over two nights. The state was caught so off-guard that officials at energy agencies resorted to calling individual companies, asking them to reduce their electricity demand and send excess energy to the grid.

Last year’s blackouts were relatively minor in scale, dwarfed by electricity shutoffs intended to avoid sparking wildfires that have become a regular feature of California summers as well as the two-week outage in Texas this past February. But the episode evoked memories of the state’s 2000-01 energy crisis that took down a governor — and now, with a recall election looming, the comparisons are even clearer.

“Folks have very limited patience when they simply can’t turn a switch and flip on the lights,” said Steven Maviglio, who served as press secretary to Gov. Gray Davis before he was recalled in 2003. “I think he’s more vulnerable than even Gray Davis was because first of all, we had a taste of it. He said he was going to fix it, and if it happens again, he may have to pay the price for it.”

State agencies have already taken steps to avoid blackouts this summer by keeping natural gas plants online, increasing energy storage and boosting conservation. But they acknowledge there’s still a risk, especially if temperatures spike in August and September like they did last year.

The grid operator released a report Wednesday predicting a 12 percent chance of rolling blackouts if the state’s three largest utilities don’t receive enough imported electricity from neighboring states and publicly-owned utilities — a likely scenario, as other western states often experience similar summer conditions.

A spokesperson for Newsom’s office acknowledged that grid reliability had become more challenging, but said Californians have been learning to shift their energy use during extreme weather events and the state has upped its supply.

“While this summer will have plenty of uncertainty, grid managers are preparing now for the worst, and the state has maximized supply and created new programs to reduce demand to avoid service disruptions,” said Erin Mellon, the spokesperson.

State officials have made it clear that avoiding blackouts is a priority for Newsom.

“He understands that we are working very hard to make sure that we keep the lights on,” Marybel Batjer, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told reporters this month. “He knows and we know that we’re doing all we can for the people of California.”

Newsom, she added, made “each of us” aware of “how critically important it is.”

The state has added enough new capacity since last summer to power up to 3.2 million homes. It has approved more than 60 new projects that will be online by August, such as natural gas, and has pushed out public service announcements urging conservation and increased incentives for companies to cut their use during grid emergencies.

But the state also faces new obstacles. Hydropower supplies that help balance out dips in solar generation are lower because of drought, and electricity demand could be higher than it was last year, as businesses ramp up activity after a year of lockdown.

“We’re running to stay in place, and it’s maybe even worse than that because we don’t have some of the resources we had last year in terms of available hydro,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program.

Some see pitfalls in the state’s response. A former state regulator warns that ordering utilities to buy more capacity ahead of this summer, as the state has done, will raise electric bills.

“We’re going to have extraordinary rates,” said Loretta Lynch, who served as Public Utilities Commission president during the 2000-01 energy crisis. “That too is a serious political liability to any governor.”

California’s electric system also faces longer term challenges, including a counterintuitive problem: a glut of daytime solar energy. When the sun sets, natural gas power plants or other fast-responding resources are needed to quickly supply power. Over the objections of environmentalists, state officials last year extended the lives of four aging plants to maintain grid reliability.

More blackouts would further undermine the state’s renewable energy push.

“It would be a political problem for Newsom, it would be a political problem for renewable policies, it would be a political problem for the general rollout of green technologies,” Borenstein said.

Last year, as they raced to avoid additional outages, Newsom’s office asked ports to switch docked ships from onshore electricity to engine power to free up supplies, circumventing state air pollution rules.

Port officials say they’re ready to help again. “If the administration reaches out again, we want to be prepared for the ask,” said David Libatique, a deputy executive director at the Port of Los Angeles.

But short of similar last-minute scrambling, “we’ve got what we’ve got for 2021,” said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a Sacramento think tank. “There isn’t a lot of time left to do much more.”