How a Text Helped California Dodge Rolling Blackouts

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Sunset over LA
Courtesy of Cedric Letsch on Unsplash

Yesterday afternoon millions Californians around the state received an emergency alert straight to their mobile phones asking them to conserve power as the electric grid teetered on edge of collapse. The move came as the state battles on through an historic heatwave that has laid bare the shortcoming of its infrastructure in the face of a new and hotter climate.

At around 5 p.m. yesterday, the Golden State grid saw a record-setting peak demand of 52,061 megawatts. At 5:17, grid operators triggered a level 3 energy emergency alert, which signals to utility providers to prepare for rotating blackouts.

“We were well into the reserve tank of the car,” said CAISO president Elliot Mainzer in a press conference this morning. “We were down to the last gallon there and dipping into our operating reserves.”

At 5:45 p.m., Governor Newsom authorized the use of the wireless emergency alert system, which sent the text urging Californians to conserve power. The impact was almost immediate.

“Within moments, we saw a significant amount of load reduction showing up to the tune of approximately 2000 megawatts,” said Mainzer. “That significant response from California consumers to the wireless emergency alert allowed us to restore our operating reserves and took us back from the edge of broader disturbance. As a result, we stayed in the first phase of the EAA three, and did not have to trigger rotating outages last night.”

Despite the CAISO’s adamance that it never called for rotating outages, the Northern California Power Agency did in fact cut the power for residents. Mainzer insists that the blackouts were likely the result of confusion between the two agencies.

“I don't know, honestly, this morning, exactly what happened there,” says Mainzer. “But we will be in touch and certainly really doubling down our communication with the utility to make sure that there is not a problem like that going forward.”

CAISO said that, even though the state was scrounging for every single megawatt it could find, the 45 megawatts saved from the communication snafu would not have made the difference to keep the lights on statewide.

Mainzer says the flex power gleaned from residents scaling back on power consumption–which totaled over 2,000 megawatts–was the key in bringing the grid back from the brink. But the agency is also aware that over-using the messaging system will likely decrease its effectiveness, as Californians become desensitized to repeated warnings.

“I think we need to be very careful not to just think that we can depend on that sort of a tool,” he said.

With temperature set to remain extremely high for at least several more days, CAISO is hoping that it won’t need the text warning again tonight, although there will still be a flex alert for this evening and citizens are still being asked to set thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, turn off unnecessary lights, and refrain from using appliances between the hours of 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.

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