Blacking Out: Struggles of the California Power Grid

electrical-power-linesThe operators of the California electric grid, under a state of emergency since June, made it through the year’s first fierce heat wave, but face a near-perfect storm of setbacks as they struggle to keep the lights on until fall brings cooler weather. Be glad you don’t work there. Here is a brief list of what they’re facing:

  • The endless drought has so depleted the state’s reservoirs that only 20% of the normal supply of hydro power is available. Hydro is one of the largest sources of California’s power.  
  • The largest source of electricity in the southern half of the state, natural gas, is not available at all due to the shutdown of the massive storage facilities in Aliso Canyon after they leaked massive quantities of natural gas into the atmosphere — for four months.
  • The summer heat, and the electricity needed to deal with it, are both seeking new record highs this year.
  • With the system thus stretched to its utmost, natural disasters also threaten. Wildfires, which are breaking out earlier in the year, getting bigger, and lasting longer than ever, not only damage the grid directly, but their smoke ionizes the air and bleeds power from transmission lines and force operators to reduce line voltages.
  • And then there’s the really big gorilla in the room, the Big One, earthquake that is, that will destroy much of the California grid, and that’s not all.

To understand how frail this all is, keep in mind the following:

  • There must be present on the grid, at all times, exactly enough electricity to match demand. Fall a little short and you have a brownout that can seriously damage electric motors and electronics. A little too much and circuit breakers start tripping to contain the surge, a process that can very quickly get out of hand.
  • There are massive generators running all the time whose output is mostly not used, but must be available instantly to meet additional demand. The operators calculate the expected peak demand, add a margin of safety, and keep that much current available. If it were not necessary to provide for peak demand, electricity cost would be cut in half.
  • Electricity travels at the speed of light. The system has to be tuned instantaneously. There is no margin for error.

If, despite all precautions, demand for electricity exceeds the supply available on the grid, operators shut off power to sections of the grid to prevent the whole thing from going down. To spread the burden, after a while they restore power to the section and shut down another one for a while. This is called a rolling blackout. The California Independent System Operator has warned its customers in Southern California not only to expect rolling blackouts (they have become a feature of every summer) but that every customer should expect to be without power for a total of 14 days this summer.

Those are the planned outages. There have been 470 unplanned outages so far this year in California, caused by the usual suspects: falling tree branches, lightning strikes, and “I told you not to touch that.”

Should one of the stressors get out of hand, or one of the defenses not work well enough, Californians will not be the only ones to suffer. The tremors in the Midwest System Operator’s grid first noticed in the early afternoon of August 14, 2003, within hours turned into a tsunami of runaway power that blacked out New York City, eight American states and two Canadian provinces for up to two days.

With the temperatures rising, the water evaporating, the fires raging and the earthquake coming, think of the California grid as a guitar being tuned a too high. First you just get higher and higher notes. Then there’s that awful snap.


Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Blacking Out: Struggles of the California Power Grid

  1. Kate says:

    Poor California. Poor all of us.

    I was in the NYC blackout and walked from downtown to Grand Central in blazing heat, then slept on the floor along with thousands of others waiting for a train. No restrooms open or working. I remember passing cars trapped in gridlock at every intersection , drivers obviously at their wit’s end as to what to do. Heat waves boiled off every car hood. Masses of people walking over the Manhattan bridge. And this was only a one-day event…I urge everyone to have a plan for such a situation, CA resident or not.

    Thanks for your concise, quality reporting. Much appreciated.

  2. Tom says:

    Wow. This is the way collapse happens – the grid shuts down. Normally it’s up and running again in a relatively small amount of time. Last winter I was without power for four and a half days in bitter cold. It wasn’t fun and by the last hours I was about to give up on civilization. In heat conditions it would be even worse.

    Great synopsis Mr. Lewis. As Kate alludes above, we’re in a world of hurt and it ain’t gettin’ any better.

  3. Denis Frith says:

    Of course, these outages of technical systems combining to some extent with natural disruptions are becoming more common due to the impact of the sleterious operation of industrialized civilzation combining with nature’s response.
    Recent operations in that island south of Australia, Tasmania, are just another example of what indistrialized civilization is doing wrong, so making life difficult for the citizens. Being in the roaring forties so having a good rainfall, it has been able to rely on hydro power stations for decades but as the poulation and industry grew it was decided to instal the Bass Link so that eletricity could be swapped with Victoria to help to meet demands. But things have gone wrong in the past few years.bass Link failed just as a drought caused the lake levels to drop to such an extent that hydro power dropped. Industrieys had to shut down and emergency generators had to be purchased and installed. Then nature exerted its revenge. The rain poured down and that filled the lakes but flooded much farmland,
    killing many animals and soaking the soil. It caused the gretaes t flooding of the city of Launcestl since 1929. Bass Link has now been restored and people have been recovering from the flooding – only for more flooding rain this past week. The emergency services are hard put to meet demands. ironically they have more experience in dealing with the bushfires that have occurred in recent years.

  4. Mike Kay says:

    It certainly appears that this entire civilization has lost any ability it once had to innovate and solve problems. The failure to adapt that this circumstance indicates dooms this civilization to the scrap heap.
    Part of this failure is due to intentional actions, and the inability of humanity to recognize the cost of such, and to stop these actions before its too late.
    Part, no doubt, is also due to sheer stupidity. However, an unmistakable part of it all is unavoidably due to evil.
    Humanity is not simply facing a collapse crisis, it’s facing a huge rite of passage whereby it’s very essence is challenged; a veritable battle for it’s soul.

  5. TL-with this article and the one on sand piracy, I’m reminded why I enjoy reading you so. I’m learning things no one else covers. Keep up the wonderful work.

  6. Few people understand the scope, complications, weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our synchronized electrical grid. AC power transformed the country (both virtually and literally, with transformers) as DC never could. AC’s huge advantage over DC: it can travel over great distances. DC’s huge advantage over AC: it can be stored. And storage is key to any future hybrid system that goes beyond spinning alternators (load or reserve) and adds intermittent, DC-to-AC renewable sources like wind and solar. It’s not impossible, particularly with some effort to conserve energy from whatever source and much more efficient inverters today, but the time to begin heading down this path was decades ago, when the fossil fuel low-hanging fruit was still easily extracted, not when we’re recklessly trying anything, like hydraulic fracturing, to squeeze out every last drop as the end draws near.