SAN FRANCISCO – Widespread blackouts to reduce pressure on the electric grid were averted Monday night after regulators warned earlier in the day that they would not have enough power to meet demand in the midst of a heat wave.
The California Independent System Operator lifted its emergency declaration shortly before 8 p.m. Monday, after the state's power grid operator had warned that it expected to implement rotating outages that could have left millions of Californians in the dark for up to two hours.
California ISO would have ordered utilities to shed their power loads as demand for electricity to cool homes soared. The operator had said as many as 3.3 million homes and businesses would be affected but later reduced that to around a half-million before cancelling the option.
Pleas for people to leave their air conditioners at higher temperatures and avoid using washing machines and other major appliances seemed to have worked.
“Thank you for conserving," California ISO said in a tweet.
The first rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years came Friday as unusually hot weather overwhelmed the electrical grid. The three biggest utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — turned off power to more than 410,000 homes and businesses for about an hour at a time until the emergency declaration ended 3 1/2 hours later.
A second but shorter outage hit Saturday evening, affecting more than 200,000 customers. Californians packed beaches and river banks over the weekend to cool off from scorching triple-digit temperatures that raised the risk of more wildfires and fears of the coronavirus spreading.
An irate Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency proclamation Sunday allowing some energy users and utilities to tap backup energy sources. He acknowledged Monday that the state failed to predict and plan for the energy shortages.
“I am not pleased with what’s happened," he said during a news briefing. "You shouldn’t be pleased with the moment that we’re in here in the state of California.”
Newsom also sent a letter demanding that the state Energy Commission, state Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent System Operator investigate the blackouts.
The Democratic governor said residents battling a heat wave and a pandemic in which they're encouraged to stay home were left without the basic necessity of electricity. In Southern California, temperatures reached a record high of 110 in Lancaster and 111 in Palmdale.
“These blackouts, which occurred without prior warning or enough time for preparation, are unacceptable and unbefitting of the nation’s largest and most innovative state,” Newsom wrote in the letter. “This cannot stand. California residents and businesses deserve better from their government.”
During a grid operator board meeting Monday, California ISO CEO and President Steve Berberich said. said the weekend blackouts could have been avoided had regulators listened to its previous concerns about a power shortfall. In call later with reporters, he softened his tone, saying he knows the Public Utilities Commission is working to find the right balance of energy sources.
“It’s substantial, no question about it," he said of the outage.
The Public Utilities Commission said it would work with the other agencies to figure out what happened. The demand for electricity in the last few days has been consistent with expectations, spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.
“The question we’re tackling is why certain resources were not available," she said.
The last time a California governor faced power outages, he was successfully recalled. Gray Davis, a Democrat, was recalled in October 2003 and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the state needs to do more to store and sell clean energy sources, and he hopes this week's blackouts will prompt officials to act.
“This is kind of a stress test on the system," he said. “We have not built up enough of a smart enough system to take advantage of all the renewables we have in place."
Customers are asked to reduce energy use through Wednesday night, especially during peak evening hours.
Bonnie Wikler, 66, worried about her husband, who is recovering from open heart surgery. She said it was very stressful to lose power twice over the weekend at their home in Coalinga, a city in central California where temperatures reached 109 Fahrenheit (43 Celsius).
They thought about driving somewhere but were too afraid of coronavirus exposure, so they stayed home and cooled off with ice water, she said.
“If there was a fire or an earthquake, I would understand, but to cut power without letting you know, it just seems outlandish to me," Wikler said.
Berberich acknowledged that his agency should have given more public notice, saying, “We own that and are sorry we didn’t do more.”
In Marin County, just north of San Francisco, officials opened a cooling center that only 21 people visited over the weekend, spokeswoman Laine Hendricks said. It's equipped with a backup generator, and employees are screening for COVID-19 symptoms and ensuring people are wearing masks, she said.
“We’re still in a shelter-in-place environment,” Hendricks said. “Even though it’s hot outside, COVID hasn’t gone away.”
California also still faces the threat of power outages to prevent wildfires. Thousands were without power for days last year when Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities shut off lines amid high, dry winds in order to prevent wildfires.
This story has been corrected to remove an inaccurate reference to declaration being lifted two hours after initial warning. The first warning came in the afternoon.
Beam reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.