Two Million Californians Go Dark and the Heat Is Just Beginning

(Bloomberg) — As many as two million Californians were plunged into darkness over the course of four hours late Friday in the first rolling blackouts to hit the state since the 2001 energy crisis.

And that was only Day One. A relentless heat wave is expected to blanket California through the middle of next week, sending temperatures soaring past 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) in some parts. People blasting their air conditioners and fans to keep cool are straining the region’s power system and raising the specter of a repeat of Friday’s sudden and largely unannounced outages.

It started at about 6:30 p.m. local time on Friday, when California’s grid operator determined through a complex calculation that the state’s power reserves had fallen below a critical threshold and called a Stage 3 grid emergency, which triggers what it describes as “load interruption.” The last time such a declaration was made during the 2000 and 2001 electricity crisis, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses took turns being plunged into darkness, power prices surged to a record and the state’s largest utility was forced into bankruptcy.

“We had an energy shortfall,” Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for grid manager California Independent System Operator, said in a phone interview late Friday. The agency put the call out to the state’s utilities to cut demand by about 1,000 megawatts. That’s enough to power about 750,000 homes, by California ISO’s estimates, affecting well over 2 million people based on the average household size.

The heat and the blackouts are hitting at an especially vulnerable time for the region with the pandemic forcing people to remain at home. They’re also coming less than a year after utilities in the region deliberately cut off power to millions of customers in an effort to prevent their power lines from igniting wildfires amid unusually strong winds — another consequence of increasingly extreme weather brought on in part by climate change.

Widespread Heat

Regions around the world have been grappling with extreme heat in recent weeks. What was forecast as one of the worst heat waves in more than a century gripped parts of Europe in August. The eastern U.S. is just emerging from July temperatures that were expected to topple daily records in Manhattan and Boston dating to the 19th century. But few, if any, have had to resort to the rotating outages that California orchestrated late Friday.

The bulk of the shutoffs came from PG&E Corp. The state’s biggest utility said it expected as many as 250,000 customers to be shut off in rolling outages, with power to be fully restored by 11 p.m. “Unfortunately, because of the emergency nature of this, we weren’t able to notify customers in advance,” Jeff Smith, a company spokesman, said in a telephone interview. The outages occurred for 60 to 90 minutes on a rotating basis through the utility’s Northern and Central California service territory, he said.

Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility began shutting off customers shortly before 7 p.m., with about 132,000 powerless as of 7:45 p.m. “It’s happening pretty fast,” said spokesman David Song. Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric utility said shutoffs were “widespread” across its territory in San Diego and southern Orange counties.

Temperatures climbed to a record in parts of the Bay Area on Friday, according to the National Weather Service, with San Francisco reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit and San Jose at 103.

California won’t see a respite from the high temperatures until later next week, based on National Weather Service forecasts. The weather agency had posted excessive heat warnings for much of California from Friday through Wednesday.

Electricity prices have already hit two-year highs as weather forecasters called for extreme temperatures. Spot power prices surged past $1,000 a megawatt-hour across California on Friday evening. Natural gas prices in Southern California more than doubled on the increased need for the fuel for power production, according to report from BloombergNEF.

Grid operators will continue to monitor the situation throughout the weekend and into next week, Gonzales said. The odds of rolling outages on Saturday and Sunday might prove lower as demand is typically weaker outside of work hours. Asked whether the California ISO will need to call for additional power shutoffs, she said: “We don’t expect one, but we are prepared for one.”

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