California ISO official warns of blackouts

The California Independent System Operator warned Wednesday California has more than a fifty-fifty chance of experiencing rolling blackouts early in the evening. The state is short about 4,000-5,000 Mw for the peak period between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. PST. Credit problems are deterring the ability of the ISO and the investor-owned utilities to import any power from the Pacific Northwest.

Dec 13th, 2000


Ann de Rouffignac
OGJ Online

The California Independent System Operator warned Wednesday California has more than a fifty-fifty chance of experiencing rolling blackouts early in the evening.

The state is short about 4,000-5,000 Mw for the peak period between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. PST. Credit problems are deterring the ability of the ISO and the investor-owned utilities to import any power from the Pacific Northwest.

�The market participants are not willing to sell power to California utilities or the ISO without cash first,� says Kellan Fluckiger, chief operating officer of the ISO.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co., a unit of Sempra Energy; Southern California Edison Co., a unit of Edison International; and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., a unit of PG&E Corp.; are heavily in debt and strapped for cash because they have not been able to pass through to customers the costs of purchased power, which continue to rise dramatically. The utilities have said they are at risk of insolvency because they are squeezed between the high cost of power and the rate caps imposed by the California legislature.

�We will have a Stage 3 as early as 1:30 or 2 p.m. PST. We may need about 1,000 Mw of firm load to be interrupted and stay off until 7 p.m. At 5 p.m., we might have to increase the blackouts to 3,000 Mw of firm load for the rest of the peak period,� says Fluckiger. �I�ve painted a very bleak picture.�

However, he said, the situation is very fluid and can change from moment to moment.

For example, if there is an extraordinary response from customers to conserve power or some market participants are willing to sell more power to the ISO, rotating blackouts could be avoided, Fluckiger said.

�But barring an enormous response from the public or an easing of the credit situation, we will have the blackouts,� he says.

The ISO has appealed to the California Public Utility Commission, Gov. Gray Davis, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for help. But officials admit that the ability for these entities to help may be limited.

Transmission constraints
The state continues to be plagued by a transmission constraint on a line called �Path 15� from south to north. It is running at capacity and tends to get overloaded, explains Fluckiger. The only way to �unload� the line is to increase generation in northern California or increase imports from Northwest. Because imports have dried up from the Northwest, the ISO is having difficulty controlling Path 15 and keeping it from exceeding its limits.

Complicating the ISO�s task is the low water level at Helms generating plant, a large hydroelectric plant.

�There are only 2 hours left of water for this plant,� he says.

Fluckiger says people are stationed at the banks of that reservoir watching the level to make sure it doesn�t go below a specified level, creating dangerous conditions for the power plant.

�If nothing changes we will have the Stage 3 rotation as early 1:30,� he says.

Fluckiger said 800 Mw was sold to the ISO from a participant in the Northwest for 1hour. While helping ease the crisis for a moment, Fluckiger is not sure if the offer will be extended and is worried that curtailing the 800 Mw and cutting off the Helms plant will help usher in the blackouts.


In state generation
The state continues to get plants back on line that were out of service for maintenance or forced outages. Last week as much as 11,000 Mw was off line but now only 7,000 Mw is out of service, says Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the ISO.

Up 2,400 Mw was down because of environmental emissions limits. All but 400 Mw have come back on line now, he says.

But the state also has 3,300 Mw of qualifying facilities shut down because their contractual payments from utilities do not cover the power plant�s gas costs. These are facilities that sell power to utilities under special contracts. The contracts have not been adjusted for the sky rocketing gas costs.

The utilities cannot increase their payments because the PUC will not allow them to pass through the added gas expenses to customers.

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