The Week California Went Dark

September 17, 2020

By: Esther Heymans

Nobody wants to live in the dark. Those who lived in California during the rolling blackouts of August 2020 had to experience just that. For two days, the power to communities across California was shut off for anywhere between 8 minutes to 3 hours. Phil Moeller, Executive Vice President of Business Operations Group and Regulatory Affairs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), sat down with “The Current”  to explain how these blackouts occurred and the future impacts that they will have.

One of the largest factors in the August blackouts was the historic heatwave that swept over the west coast. Due to the heat, customers in California were running their air conditioners lower and for longer periods of time. This, combined with technical issues from several natural gas plants and reduced hydroelectric output, created a situation where more energy was needed than was being produced. This is a problem for the electric system, as supply must match demand. “Ultimately the laws of physics govern the electric system, and those cannot be repealed,” Moeller stated. He continued, “there just wasn’t enough electricity on the west coast to serve all the needs of California.” In order to maintain as much system stability as possible they had to practice rolling blackouts.

This is not the first time California has faced rolling blackouts. The last time was during the California energy crisis of 2000 and 2001. The energy crisis stemmed in part from a dry winter that didn’t create a lot of hydropower. The west coast relies heavily on hydropower and without it they could not meet the demand of the unprecedentedly hot summer that followed. Because demand outpaced supply, energy prices skyrocketed. Energy companies were forced to purchase wholesale electricity and sell it to consumers for a loss. Rolling blackouts ensued. The effects of this energy crisis are still felt throughout the state, and there is still pending litigation that has yet to be resolved. “I used that [energy crisis] as a daily reminder when I was in that position that I never wanted something equivalent to happen on my watch,” Moeller reflected.

Rolling blackouts are not a problem faced by California alone. In the past few years, Texas has garnered national attention due to the numerous rolling blackouts that have occurred. While Texas does not face hydroelectric shortages like California does, it faces another kind of intermittency. Texas’ biggest clean energy output is wind. For the most part, this is a good thing, as wind is very prevalent in the state. However, when weather events cut off that supply of energy it becomes harder to maintain stability across the state.

To Moeller, all these events signal the same thing- an overdependence on one type of energy supply. The electric system works the best when it is redundant and when there are backups. “To me,” Moeller said, “it’s worth added investment to anticipate these kinds of problems whether it’s through redundancies in the infrastructure or stockpiling extra supplies.” As the country moves towards new, more renewable energy sources, they will face problems with intermittency just like in California and Texas. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, and some years are drier than others. This doesn’t spell the end for renewable energy sources, however. This just means that policy makers must be aware of the needs for redundancies and backup sources of energy. As we move towards cleaner energy sources, safety nets must be put in place to ensure people don’t have to live in the dark.

Listen to episode 15  of “The Current” to learn more!

Episode 15: In August, an historic heatwave resulted in rolling blackouts that left hundreds of thousands of Californians without electricity. To help explain what happened and how we got to this point, Brad is joined by Phil Moeller, Executive Vice President of Business Operations Group and Regulatory Affairs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).