Miscommunication led utilities to mistakenly shut off power to customers in several California cities during an unprecedented demand for energy supplies, the state’s power grid operators admitted on Wednesday while warning that continued extreme heat could lead to much larger bearing failures.
Confusion arose Tuesday afternoon between a Northern California Power Agency dispatcher and the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) as the grid was dangerously close to running out of power amid record high temperatures.
“That certainly concerns me,” said Elliot Mainzer, president and CEO of Cal-ISO, on Wednesday. “A lot happened on the grid for everyone last night. And so we’re going to double down on communication to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
With record power demand across the West, California hit its record high power consumption around 5 p.m. Tuesday with 52,061 megawatts, well above the previous record of 50,270 megawatts set on July 24, 2006. .
As residents and businesses turned on air conditioning to escape the sweltering heat in the West and solar power supplies began to decline, Cal-ISO issued a Level 3 Energy Emergency Alert to prepare utilities to trigger blackouts if demand did not decrease. The state’s legal marijuana regulatory agency has urged businesses to turn off lights and reduce power or use backup generators.
The Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), which owns and operates power generation facilities for 16 members, including a dozen small towns, said a dispatcher misinterpreted Cal-ISO’s order to prepare power off and immediately began the process of shutting off power to approximately 35,000 customers.
Customers in Alameda, Lodi, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, Healdsburg and Ukiah lost power for an hour, the NCPA said in a statement.
“Once the outages were triggered, our dispatcher contacted (Cal-ISO) to advise that the reduction action had been taken, and was later informed that there had been a misunderstanding on the original order,” said said the NCPA.
The power grid was on “the edge”
As the state teetered on blackouts, Governor Gavin Newsom first triggered a wireless emergency alert system at 5.45pm that sent messages to 27 million cellphones urging them to turn off or to reduce non-essential food.
Within moments, there was a reduction of more than 2,000 megawatts, bringing the state “back from the brink,” Mainzer said.
“It took a really strong signal,” Mainzer said. “I think they now recognize that we mean business. It’s a real problem. And we need a real answer.”
Newsom, speaking in Beverly Hills, said he’s debated pressing that button for the past four to five days. He finally decided to test it and concluded that it was a game-changer, although he was hesitant to use it too often for fear of weakening its effectiveness.
With residents and businesses under the eighth straight day of a “flexible alert” asking for energy conservation between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., a similar response was needed on Wednesday.
“This year has been hotter than hell”
Western states are grappling with one of the hottest and longest September heatwaves on record. Temperatures began to soar last week and the National Weather Service (NWS) warned dangerous heat could continue through Friday, despite mild moderation.
Nearly 54 million people were on heat warnings and advisories across the West as temperature records were shattered in many regions.
California’s state capital, Sacramento, hit an all-time high on Tuesday of 46.7°C, breaking a 97-year-old record. Salt Lake City, Utah, equaled its record temperature Wednesday at 41.6 C. Reno, Nevada, broke records for the hottest temperatures on record in September, according to the National Weather Service.
Scientists say climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Over the past five years, California has experienced the largest and most destructive wildfires in state history.
In the northern plains, the unusually late heat wave peaked on Wednesday after a long series of scorching days.
Along a main thoroughfare in downtown Billings, Montana, where the temperature set a daily record 39C, Gale Spotted Bear of the Blackfeet Reservation sought shelter from the searing heat in the shade of a vacant building.
“This year has been hotter than hell,” Spotted Bear said, noting that homeless people can be the hardest hit if they have nowhere to go. “It’s hard here.”
The latest wave of high temperatures exceeded anything California has seen, including a heat wave in August 2020 that brought two days of rotating power outages, Newsom said.
“We threw away all the old playbooks in terms of planning [for] worst-case scenarios,” he said. “Even the worst-case worst-case scenario never lasted for a week like this.