Lawmakers Question Batjer on PG&E's Rolling Blackouts

Tribune News Service

Acting on an order from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Independent System Operator, the California Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission last week released a preliminary root-cause analysis into the first rolling blackouts in California since 2001.

The heads of the three organizations overseeing the state’s energy issues appeared before sometimes skeptical lawmakers in Sacramento this week to discuss back-to-back days in August in which California experienced statewide blackouts — and a number of near-misses that have occurred since.

“We’re pulling on every lever we have,” said Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission. “I can’t say that I will pledge to you, I guarantee you, this will not happen again. I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

David Hochschild, chairman of the California Energy Commission, said, “We’re going to fight like hell to ensure grid reliability. That’s our No. 1 goal, for all of us.”

Wearing masks and practicing social distancing protocols at the State Capitol, members of the Assembly’s Committee on Utilities and Energy on Monday asked questions of Batjer, Hochschild and the outgoing and incoming CEOs of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the private nonprofit that manages the electric grid for about 80 percent of the state.

The system operator on Aug. 14 and 15 declared a Stage 3 Emergency, requiring the state’s big electric utilities to shed load — that is, turn off power to some of their customers — because demand on the grid outpaced available energy supplies amid a blistering heat wave that lingered over the entire state, as well as the West.

On Aug. 14, about 491,600 electricity customers statewide lost power between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. for anywhere between 15 minutes to 2.5 hours. The next evening, 321,000 customers statewide were cut off, with downtimes ranging from eight to 90 minutes.

If not for emergency measures that brought in extra energy sources and everyday consumers consciously reducing their electricity demand, there would have been more blackouts Aug. 17-19. Another heat wave over the Labor Day weekend nearly led to the system operator, known as the CAISO, to initiate other rounds of rotating outages.

Acting on an order from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the CAISO, the energy commission and the PUC last week released a preliminary root-cause analysis into the first rolling blackouts in California since 2001, which led to the ousting of then-Gov. Gray Davis.

The analysis said no one single thing led to the outages but said a combination of factors were exacerbated by the extreme heat in mid-August that set records across the state. Death Valley posted a record high of 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Assemblyman and committee vice chair Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, said the root-cause analysis amounted to “finger-pointing” among the three energy organizations.

“Today we have a grid that is increasingly expensive, unreliable and unavailable when the people of California need it the most,” Patterson said.

Patterson then criticized California policy decision to transition from fossil fuel generation to renewable sources that he said has created “two classes of electrons” that carry energy via the statewide grid.

“One class is moral and another class is immoral,” Patterson said. “We are throttling down or shutting down or closing the kind of immoral electrons that the state has categorized. And the moral electrons have been letting us down. And yet it has been those very immoral electrons that have been the ones that we have reached to in order to keep our lights on. We should learn the obvious lessons of this irony.”

Assemblyman Chad Mayes, I-Yucca Valley, picked up on the idea, citing how his district has experienced more than 140 days of temperatures in the triple-digits this year.

“There is a moral imperative to address climate change, knowing that we have a responsibility as citizens in California, as global citizens, to address that,” Mayes said. “This Legislature, this government, has made that a top priority. That is not negotiable any longer.

“At the same time, we have a moral imperative to make sure there’s energy security. ... It is unacceptable to live in Palm Desert where it’s 115 degrees and get a notice that your power is going to be out. It is unacceptable that even when it could be 8 o’clock at night, it could still be 105 or 100 degrees and you have senior citizens at home in that kind of temperature with no electricity and they don’t have any backup.”

Batjer said the utilities commission expects to see 2,400 megawatts of additional power from carbon-free energy storage and renewable sources such as solar coming online by next August. “We do have a sense of urgency,” Batjer said.

“This is a solvable problem,” Hochschild said, “and we have a lot of developmental tools to get there.”

But Autumn Burke, D-Inglewood, said while she heard a lot about planning, “If we had another event tomorrow, for the next week, we would fail again (and have another blackout) and I haven’t really heard why we wouldn’t fail again.”

The root-cause analysis described the August heat wave as a “1-in-35-year event” but Steve Berberich, who retired as CEO of the CAISO earlier this month, said the state should prepare itself for more frequent bouts of extreme heat.

“That’s got to be part of the planning going forward, that this heat and this climate change is upon [us], and it’s not going to be 1-in-35 anymore,” Berberich said. “It could be 1-in-5 now, it could be 1-in-2.”

Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, said additional battery storage from lithium-ion and cobalt isn’t enough and said state organizations are moving too slowly on long-term storage projects, such as pumped hydro in which hydroelectric facilities pump water from one reservoir up to another and then release it. The ensuing rush of water generates electricity when the grid needs it.

“I’ll believe you’re procuring hydropower, pumped storage, when I see the RFP (request for proposal) going out,” Quirk said. “Until then, it’s just talk.”

Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, questioned whether the state can replace the loss of power from the soon-to-be closed Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant by the time the 2,240-megawatt facility starts to shut down in four years. He also said energy officials need to accelerate the development of offshore wind farms along the coast of Central and Northern California.

“We need a plan,” Cunningham said. “You could do 2 gigawatts (2,000 megawatts) if you site enough offshore wind.”

Batjer said “we absolutely have a plan” to make up for the loss of Diablo Canyon’s generation. She said the utilities commission last month received plans from the state’s load-serving entities — energy providers such as utilities and private companies that supply electricity load — spelling out how the gap can be filled.

Hochschild agreed potential resources for wind in California are “substantially better” than what is produced by wind on land but said the state has had to wrangle with the federal government to get plans solidified.

Christina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, mentioned how state energy policies, such as conservation measures that call on consumers to curb demand and use less electricity, impact customers who live in low-income areas.

“I find that really problematic in a district where I know consumers are already using a lot less on a regular basis because they can’t afford to use more” and don’t have access to air conditioning, Garcia said. “I think the same thing when we talk about investing in, whether it’s hydro storage or biomass. Who’s going to be paying for that?”

California’s grid issues come as the state has committed to deriving 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. Following the blackouts and slew of wildfires burning across the state, Newsom signed an executive order last month requiring that by 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California be zero-emission vehicles.