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California could see blackouts this summer, utility experts warn

Officials fear a hot summer or surge in wildfires could wreak havoc with the state's power grid.

Updated: June 8, 2021 - 10:47am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A hot summer or surge in wildfires likely are to cause blackouts across California this summer, according to a panel of public and private officials involved with maintaining the state’s power grid.

The Sacramento Press Club last week hosted Robert Foster, former Mayor of Long Beach and former president of Southern California Edison; state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who also sits on the state’s wildfire prevention group; Elliot Mainzer, the president of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO); and Susan Kennedy, a former aide to Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The panel discussion centered around the state’s perennial issue of rolling brownouts and blackouts in time of high power need or outages caused by wildfires.

Attendees were resigned to the thought the grid will keep a steady flow of wattage this summer. Still, California residents will see power interruptions in the event of a prolonged stretch of heat or another interruption caused by power lines being damaged by fires.

“If we get into another west-wide heating event like we saw last year, our numbers tell us the grid will be stressed again,” Mainzer said. “We will be reaching out actively to consumers to conserve energy.”

Foster praised a recent proposal to prioritize local power delivery in times of high need over “wheel-through” wattage, or power that’s passing through on its way to other states. Utilities in neighboring states have criticized the move, saying it exports California’s power struggles to other states.

After a year of what many call the nation’s most strict COVID-19 mitigations, Kennedy said California Gov. Gavin Newsom could see an outsized backlash over rolling blackouts even though he’s hardly to blame.

“Voters don’t care why something occurred, they just want it fixed,” Kennedy said. “Don’t underestimate how pissed off people will get after a year and a half of facing some of the worst times of their lives, how trigger happy they would be about blaming folks in government.”

McGuire criticized PG&E, the state’s largest utility provider, for not addressing the miles of transmission lines that remain in areas deemed at severe risk for wildfires.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the most immediate issues Californians are facing right now,” he said. “They want the public utilities commission, they want the Legislature, they want the governor to keep their damned lights on. That’s it. They want to be able to turn on their air conditioners in extreme heat days and they want to send their kids to school.”

Foster warned that a shift from fossil fuels at a large level could result in unaffordable electrical bills.

“We’re asking people to go to electric vehicles, we’re asking them to electrify their homes, electrify the ports, electrify industry,” he said. “You can’t keep that rate structure in place with that electrification.”

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