California orders state of emergency to avert blackouts

Mark Chediak and Joe Ryan

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to free up energy supplies and speed development of new power plants to help the state avoid blackouts as it faces wildfires and crippling heat waves this summer.

The historic drought, intense heat and blazes battering the state have left it facing a projected possible power-supply shortfall of as much as 3.5 gigawatts during late afternoons under extreme conditions, according to the emergency proclamation Friday.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, front left, and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak tour homes destroyed by wildfires near where the Tamarack Fire ignited earlier in July in Gardnerville, Nev., Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

California has struggled to keep its power grid running as it aggressively transitions away from fossil fuels and as climate change makes heat waves fiercer. Demand for air conditioning is surging just as the state’s historic drought has depleted reservoirs needed for hydropower.

The latest directive is designed to “to keep the power flowing during a summer and fall that will be hotter and drier,” Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said during a conference call to discuss the order with reporters on Friday.

President Joe Biden speaks with California Gov. Gavin Newsom via teleconference during a meeting with governors to discuss ongoing efforts to strengthen wildfire prevention, preparedness and response efforts in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Friday, July 30, 2021.

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The order creates a new temporary program that will pay industrial customers to reduce demand by shifting to back-up generation when supplies get tight. In addition, it waives air quality rules that will permit big power users and ships to use backup diesel power during emergency conditions this summer.

Newsom directed the state’s air board to mitigate environmental impacts from the emergency measures.

The order also streamlines permitting and waives certain requirements for clean-energy and storage projects. Newsom has called for similar emergency actions to free up additional power supplies during heat waves.

On Thursday, the state’s power grid order abruptly warned the systems may fall short after it unexpectedly lost 1.1 gigawatts of power generation. Last August, the state suffered its first rolling outages in almost two decades after hot weather sent electricity demand soaring.

Also See: California Says Power Conditions Improve After Grid Warning

The California grid operator hasn’t been able to secure enough of the additional supplies needed to make up for the total projected shortfalls during the late summer afternoons when solar production wanes, Elliot Mainzer, chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator, said during the call with reporters.

“It’s become clear that we’ve entered a new normal and extraordinary action is required,” he said