The SMC Alert sounded dire and indeed it was. “Extreme heat is straining the energy grid. Conserve energy now to protect public health and safety … Power interruptions may occur unless you take action.”
Californians took notice and they took action. State officials say the load on the state’s grid eased noticeably during Flex Alerts that were called across the state from Sept. 5 through 9. We turned down our thermostats (at least those of us lucky enough to have thermostats). We put off the laundry and dishwashing and charging our electric vehicles until the crisis passed.
It was a triumph of collective will toward a common objective. So, why did the power go out for thousands of people in the Bay Area despite the fact that grid managers say it was never necessary?
You might blame National California Power Agency. The city of Palo Alto did.
The NCPA, a powerful body that few Californians had ever heard of before, is a joint powers authority that manages the interface between member power agencies and the California Independent System Operator. That last body with the Orwellian name is ultimately the organization that requires PG&E and other power providers to turn off the switch to customers in various calamities, including a period of excessive heat that strains the grid. The idea is to shut down service to some — often in the form of rolling blackouts that spread the pain somewhat evenly among all customers — to keep it from failing entirely.
On Monday, energy consumers in several Bay Area cities experienced blackouts. They were led to believe the power shut-offs were ordered by the California Independent System Operator. In reality, it was a simple miscommunication. That’s right, tens of thousands of Bay Area residents went without power for a time because the game of telephone between faceless acronyms went awry.
The city of Palo Alto Utilities told its customers the day after shutting off power to some that the message to turn off the power was “delivered prematurely.” In point of fact, it should never have been delivered at all.
At 5:53 p.m. on Monday CAISO called NCPA with a communication that was interpreted as a call to shed 46 megawatts of power use from the grid. It’s a little complicated but that — 46 million watts — is a substantial request. For example, researchers suggest one megawatt is enough to power 600 California homes for an hour.
Alameda, Palo Alto, Lodi and Santa Clara all rushed to meet the requirement. In reality, though, an Energy Alert 3, means only that such blackouts may be necessary.
It’s OK that you find this stuff confusing. It is not a good sign that the very people we count on to protect the grid and make decisions that can have life and death consequences are still miscommunicating. Communications have plagued emergency officials in a variety of settings in recent years, particularly as they grapple with promising modern tools like text notifications. For instance, a text received at 10:06 a.m. on Friday announced another Flex Alert and read in part, “Conserve energy by delaying laundry until the morning” confusing customers since it was, in fact, “morning.”
Perhaps the message from last week’s heat wave was that consumers can make a difference. It was clear that Californians did their part to avoid calamity. It was equally clear grid managers have a way to go before we are confident that our electric grid won’t continue to start wildfires, will survive ever-more-serious heat waves driven by climate change, and the growing demand for electricity in a post-gasoline world.
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