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First rolling blackout since 2001 hits Palo Alto! And more are coming!

Uploaded: Aug 14, 2020
You can also find an update (Aug 17) and a wrap-up (Aug 20) on the outages.

Whoa, our power went out (about 4500 homes in Palo Alto) on purpose because the state was running low! First time for these rolling blackouts since 2001. See CAISO's brief explanation of "Stage 3 Emergency" here.

This is just a mini blog post, but I'll share more if I learn anything. Below is a snapshot from CAISO's demand page.



Prior to the outage, the LA Times writes that "The California Independent System Operator had issued a statewide flex alert earlier Friday, asking residents to conserve electricity between 3 and 10 p.m. That alert asked consumers to set air conditioner thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, turn off unnecessary lights and not use major appliances." Was anyone aware of that alert?

Other things I wonder are: (a) why we don't have advanced notice for rolling blackouts and (b) why this happened around 8pm rather than at peak which was closer to 5pm. I also wonder if there was a confluence of things that happened or if this was more or less expected given the forecast. Please share any good info or writeups in the comments...
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Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by lina crane, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Aug 14, 2020 at 10:49 pm

lina crane is a registered user.

comcast outage started during Masterpiece (Morse) and will be back at 1:07 A M.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Justin Case, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 9:16 am

Justin Case is a registered user.

The current heat spell is placing a major strain on current & available AC. This goes without saying but I am still curious and since this particular blog site is devoted to environmental concerns...

In terms of periodic heat spells, how much of it can be simply attributed to occasional spikes in seasonal temperatures?

Weather & temperature keeping records have been around for a long time now and there will always be 'record-setting' accounts...both past & present.

Seasonal temperature 'averages' are noticeably on the upswing & most likely due to air pollution factors + we really haven't experienced heavy & consistent winter rainfalls for awhile in the SF Bay area.

On the other hand and in retrospect...I recall the winter seasons of 75-76 & 76-77 when there was warmer winter temperatures and less rain/snowfall (aka a drought) while the winters of 72 & 73 were pretty darn cold with plenty of rain/snowfall.

The same can be said of past summer seasons as there will always be a hot spell buried somewhere between late July through Labor Day.

And then there's 'Indian Summer' before autumn temps begin to kick-in.

There is no apparent yardstick for establishing a sense of 'normal' in just about anything and I am beginning to suspect that the same goes for weather & climate as well.










 +   5 people like this
Posted by Margaret Sanger, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 9:42 am

Margaret Sanger is a registered user.

Sure was hot yesterday. I bet it will cool off over the next three or four days. That's usually the way it works around here!


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 9:57 am

Tom is a registered user.


The reason the time of peak stress on the "grid" was around 7pm and 8pm last night was probably that the "grid" is not just the wires but it includes the active power plants and the active power plants have maximum strain when when they have large loads to serve from fewer active power plants. This happens as the 11,000 MW of utility scale solar plants sign off from daytime production at the same time our 5,000 MW of customer rooftop solar stops producing and yesterday evening the weather had low wind so at 8 pm only about 1200 MW of wind power was blowing (about 1/4 of the maximum output).
You can see this on the supply graphs of the CAISO site you shared. (clicking on the upper left calendar to see the day of interest.) One forward look at a representation of the stress is to look at the Day Ahead (DA) auction results for wholesale power prices to see what prices it took to lure enough plants into dispatch for the DA.
Web Link

For example for Saturday 8/15 I see auction clearing prices rise from 5 cents at noon ($50/MWh = 5 cents/kWh) and peak 14 X higher around 70 cents and 80 cents for the hours that start at 6PM and 7PM. This is another very peaky expensive day. To be good "gridizens" and keep our electric rates low, we should finish charging EVs (and doing laundry etc) by 4pm while the sun is out and prices are not 14X. I'll be doing my part and unplugging me e-bike by noon. The grid extends from gas wells and coal mines, and solar fields and windfarms to the wires and to my appliances and my finger that flips the switch. I try to loop my brain into it and dance well with the grid. We can choose to operate as its partners or things get rocky.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 10:00 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Warmer days are getting more likely. Not sure there is anything to say if you are still disclaiming that. As I'm sure you know, that does not mean that a particular day like yesterday, or a spell like this week, is unprecedented. Of course it is not.

What interests me instead is the power outage. It is pretty unusual to have a Stage 3 Emergency, and the City of Palo Alto utilities said that the instructions to shed load came quickly and unexpectedly.

We are relying increasingly on the grid and I'd love to know more about the circumstances that led to this.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 10:06 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Tom, sorry, our posts overlapped. Yes, good point about supply dropping around then. I also charged my car and ran my dryer in the morning yesterday, knowing that the afternoon would be bad.

But an outage like that is worrying, in part because the state does so much planning to avoid just that kind of event.

I don't understand how the flex alert was communicated (I certainly didn't hear of anything). And I wish we had more demand-response on the grid. I love my EV charger, which only charges when energy is green. I think all EV chargers should have some kind of flex-charging built in. But I doubt they are a big enough part of the grid right now to make a difference.

To your point, for the coming pretty warm week, I hope people can try to use electricity in the morning rather than in the afternoon and evening.

Thanks for the helpful comment!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by A neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 10:44 am

A neighbor is a registered user.

They seem to tweet a lot of helpful stuff @California_ISO.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by A neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 10:47 am

A neighbor is a registered user.

Oh also a pretty cool mobile app Web Link


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Justin Case, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 11:13 am

Justin Case is a registered user.

>"I bet it will cool off over the next three or four days."

^ Temps expected to peak around Tuesday...100 in Santa Clara Valley, 105 in Contra Costa County (Walnut Creek) & around 110 in Yolo County (Davis).

Beer & lemonade sales expected to rise as well.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 11:40 am

eileen is a registered user.

Unannounced power outage here was between 6 and 7:30 pm. "Landline" phone alert came about 6:30 stating that the outage would affect 38,000+ residences. Reportedly the East Bay was also affected.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 12:36 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Neighbor -- Thanks for the pointers. I see the announcement of the flex alert there, to all 16K followers. I wonder how else they promoted it...

One way to get people to charge in the mornings is to randomly turn off power in the evenings. Maybe that is their secret strategy :)

@Eileen -- Where are you located? So you got the notice *after* the power went out? Did the landline alert say how long the outage would be?

I just don't understand why there wasn't more proactive messaging around this, both around the flex alert and around the rolling outage.

I think air conditioners and EV chargers need to be much more uniformly demand-response resources, so the utility can turn them down (or shut them off) without shutting off everything else. Or we could have widely distributed demand-response thermostats where the utility can bump up the minimum setting when power gets short. (No need to wear sweaters in air-conditioned homes!) They should just give those thermostats away and install them for free, or couple them with a cheaper rate. This kind of grid imbalance is only going to get worse going forward. We need to squish down the summer afternoon peaks so we don't have to build capacity for it that goes unused most of the time.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Victor Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 1:33 pm

Victor Bishop is a registered user.

“ Beer & lemonade sales expected to rise as well"

These are not consideered essential purchases, so Sara Cody will not approve


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 4:36 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

It looks like there may be more rolling blackouts tonight. One thing PG&E says is that a contributing factor today is cloud cover in SoCal which is impacting solar energy.

Here is a satellite pic showing the clouds.


Here is a graph from CAISO showing the solar supply for today.


You can compare it with the supply from yesterday, which is more robust.


Interesting times...


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 15, 2020 at 8:54 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

I am still confused by these rolling blackouts. California has much, MUCH more renewable energy than it had in 2001. Many people are using solar. PG&E, Palo Alto Utilities pushed for "renewable energy" initiatives that were costly to customers.

Moreover, this rolling blackout happened during the COVID-19 crisis -- with many offices and businesses shut down due to state orders. We can't even get a haircut right now.

Yet, for some reason, our state is having rolling blackouts...again.

What is the actual cause of this blackout? Is the state's resources limited due to a demand that is higher than capacity? If that is the case, has the state limited the capacity for some philosophical or economic reason?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Justin Case, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 7:17 am

Justin Case is a registered user.

> "California has much, MUCH more renewable energy than it had in 2001."

> "What is the actual cause of this blackout? Is the state's resources limited due to a demand that is higher than capacity?"

^ Possible explanations [portion removed -- inaccurate and lacking references]


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Nayeli, those are terrific questions. I'm going to include a bunch of graphs here, so you can see some data, but I'll do a summary first.

You are right that California has access to much more renewable energy than before, and it's a growing part of our portfolio. That is partly why the grid gets so strained in the early evening, when demand ramps up but the sun is going down. The wind often ramps up then, but less windy days (like Friday) or less sunny days (like Saturday) can pose a problem. California is part of a multi-state energy interconnect that helps reduce the effects of local weather by sharing power across a big region of the US. But since the heatwave was so widespread, we could not ramp up imports as much as we would like. (California by the way is a net energy importer. In fact, we import more energy than any other state.)

California knows all of this, so also works to manage the "demand" side of the equation. They will pay customers to reduce demand at certain times, or to install AC or thermostats that they can control at critical times. And they will also ask nicely (see the recent "flex alerts").

What happened on Friday afaict was that a widespread heatwave coupled with demand that the state could not adequately control coupled with greater-than-expected cloud cover resulted in the rolling blackouts. There may have been more to it, but I haven't heard. We could not generate more, import more, or reduce demand less. So we had to resort to rolling blackouts.

On Saturday, CAISO executed another set of rolling blackouts "due to increased electricity demand,
the unexpected loss of a 470-megawatt (MW) power plant, and loss of nearly 1,000 MW of wind power".

CAISO has a tricky balance. Our electricity demand is much, much higher on hot summer afternoons/evenings than during the rest of the year. But building a whole lot of capacity just for the rare widespread heatwave is really expensive. So that is why utilities try so hard to get people to reduce usage at these critical times. I think we need to be doing a lot more on that because it will help to keep our electricity bills low. When Palo Alto begins to roll out smart meters, this is one reason why. They can save all of us a lot of money by helping us to use more power at cheaper/greener times. There are also services like OhmConnect that pay people to use less energy at certain times. My EV charger does that too. This is all possible because electricity at these peak times is crazy expensive.

Short of creating more "flexible demand", California has done a terrific job with energy efficiency. While the state has grown a lot, the peak demand hasn't budged by much over the past few decades. Here is a chart showing that (Source).



This chart shows how in-state generating capacity has changed over time. You can see that it has been growing (Source).



I couldn't find a great graph showing how much we import, but in 2018 it was 32%, with much of that coming from the (hot) southwest (Source).

On hot summer evenings, we rely on our own gas and on imports. This graph is from yesterday = Saturday (Source).



This is one reason why California is trying to find longer duration energy storage, like pumped hydro, so that we can store renewable energy during the day, when it is plentiful, and release it at night. In other words, we can "flex the supply" a little, and not just find ways to "flex the demand".

Hope this was helpful. Great questions!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 2:04 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

Sherry, thank you for the info and data!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Lindsay Joye, a resident of Ventura,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 2:12 pm

Lindsay Joye is a registered user.

This SACBEE article covers the reasons why we had the outages (primarily generation plants that went offline): Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 2:46 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Lindsey, thanks for the pointer! I see that comment about Friday in there, with the CAISO spokesperson saying: "the grid was hampered in part because two big power plants couldn’t deliver any juice, including one that “tripped offline” unexpectedly late in the day". I wish they mentioned which ones and how big and whether it's common for one or two to be unavailable. I hope they can provide more/better notice about both the need to flex demand and the upcoming outages next time this happens.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 7:26 pm

eileen is a registered user.

Yes, alert was a landline message after the power outage had started in Foster City. No mention of how long it would be.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 16, 2020 at 10:05 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Incidentally, CAISO is asking all of us to reduce energy between 3-10pm today through Wednesday.

Here is an excerpt from their Flex Alert notice:

Between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., the ISO is urging consumers to:
- Set air conditioning thermostats to 78 degrees, if health permits.
- Defer use of major appliances.
- Turn off unnecessary lights.
- Unplug unused electrical devices.
- Close blinds and drapes.
- Use fans when possible.
- Limit time the refrigerator door is open.

Consumers can also take steps to prepare for the Flex Alert by doing the following before 3 p.m.:
- “Pre-cool” their homes, or lower air conditioning thermostats to 72 degrees.
- Charge electric vehicles.
- Charge mobile devices and laptops.
- Run dishwashers, washing machines and other major appliances.
- Set pool pumps to run in the early morning or late at night.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Margaret Sanger, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 7:04 am

Margaret Sanger is a registered user.

We have a poorly managed state. Sure wish we had some nuclear power plants to generate electricity to supply our needs during these hot times.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 8:43 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

I don't get worked up about rolling blackouts. Unless you're on oxygen (without backup tanks) a power outage is no big deal. Sure, you might miss your ballgame, and your house might get a little warmer. And then the power comes back on, and it's back to normal. Relax.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 8:57 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

It is a very, very big deal for the world's fifth largest economy to run out of power. That is why it is so strange that there hasn't been a better/clearer explanation about it.

The NY Times reports this morning that experts not at CAISO cannot understand it. They also suggest that the outages may have been quite premature.

Standards suggest that a Stage 3 Emergency (rolling blackouts) is called when reserves are at 3%. But reserves were at 8.9% when it was called.

I don't understand what happened. Was it a test? Were they trying to get prices under control? I will post any updates here, but from my point of view this is not straight-forward. The world's fifth largest economy should not just run out of power, and the ISO does a great deal of planning to avoid just this kind of thing.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Justin Case, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 9:00 am

Justin Case is a registered user.

> "Sure wish we had some nuclear power plants to generate electricity to supply our needs during these hot times."

^ A safer alternative would be to require that ALL new houses be equipped with propane-powered home standby generators capable of delivering at least 10,000 watts of power.

Residential solar panels are connected to the grid and absolutely useless during blackouts unless an expensive battery storage unit is also utilized.

Propane-powered home standby generators (as opposed to the portable gasoline/propane-powered ones) costs about $10K to install and could be encouraged via a property tax reduction/incentive for those residing in unequipped homes.

And while $10K is a lot of money to some folks, we simply opted to spend $10K less on our upcoming automobile purchase.

The idea of having to rely on nukes to provide additional electrical power as a whole is potentially eco-unfriendly & poses all kinds of safety hazards of its own.



 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 9:26 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

"Designed to prevent a total power structure of the state power system, rolling blackouts kick in when operating reserves dip below 1.5%"

It took me less than 10 seconds to google and find an article explaining why PG&E does rolling blackouts. We don't live in a perfect world, and these things happen. PG&E is poorly run, but I have a choice of solar, PG&E, or moving out of the area.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 9:39 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Jennifer, to clarify, it is CAISO that calls the Stage 3 Emergency, and utilities like PG&E and Palo Alto Utilities do rolling blackouts at its request.

The question is, given that CAISO protocol seems to be that a Stage 3 alert is declared when reserves are at 3%, why were rolling blackouts started when reserves were at 8.9%?

Today is going to be another very warm day. I hope everyone charges things this morning and reduces their power use in the afternoon and evening!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 10:16 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

Sherry -- I can't answer that question because I don't work for these organizations, but my guess would be erring on the side of caution. They know darn well that a lot of people won't conserve. With rolling blackouts, they make the decision for us.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Justin Case, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 11:46 am

Justin Case is a registered user.

> "The NY Times reports this morning that experts not at CAISO cannot understand it."

^ The so-called 'experts' cannot understand a lot of things... including pre-emptive electricity & Covid-19 measures.

Thus we are left on our own to deal with things.




 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2020 at 2:58 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

See blog post about upcoming blackouts here.


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