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Not Again!

By Ziad Alaywan P.E.

January 30, 2022


The year 2020 might feel like nothing we have experienced before, but to many of us seasoned grid operators, it felt like déjà vu when the summer 2020 load shedding events unfolded.

As we enter 2021, the shadow of August 14 -15, 2020 continues to linger, unresolved. In grid operations, you like to learn from mistakes—not repeat lessons learned. That’s why it’s remarkable that last summer’s events seemed to repeat the events 20 years ago that led to rotating blackouts.

When the California ISO red flag is raised, people need to listen.

I was at the ISO when it all started back in January 2020. The ISO presented a summer assessment indicating a minimum capacity shortfall of 5,000 megawatts (MW) for summer 2001.

The ISO put out a short-term request for proposals to solicit peak power capacity, demand response and replacement power. After quite a bit of opposition from state regulators (asserting that resource procurement is not the ISO’s responsibility) we got a small response of only about 750 MW, which was too little, too late.

In June 2000, with triple-digit temperatures in San Francisco and throughout most of California, ISO was short 6,000 MW from generation lost, limited imports and high demand.

Fast forward to September 2019, ISO staff made a presentation to its Board of Governors that was nearly identical to the presentation in 2000 showing a shortfall. Once again, even with adequate warning, the ISO was left to scramble in real time to find enough megawatts to keep electricity flowing until it didn’t, and a Stage 3 emergency was initiated.

Just like in 2001, the same blame game ensued—with heatwaves and lack of imports being the culprits.

Throwing blame around doesn’t solve the real issue, which is, “Who is in charge of reliability?” Bottom line, procurement decisions are in the hands of the CPUC and demand forecast decisions are in the hands of the CEC, but ISO is responsible for reliability! I am all for collaboration, but the grid needs one Reliability Captain, not three. Let us pick one and hold them responsible for ensuring supply meets demand.

Resource planning must be the cornerstone of this agency and implementation of either a FERC-based capacity market or significantly reduced reliance on imports needs to be considered. These, of course, must be coupled with revamping the flawed Resource Adequacy program (read more in next month’s write up).

I also think that the ISO should not simply outsource the problem by saying, “Yes, we knew we were going to have a problem and we told the CPUC”. I’m floored the ISO relied on a 1 in 2 demand forecast (assuming mild summer conditions) to secure capacity. The ISO must prioritize reliability, anticipating the potential for regional heatwaves, even if they ask FERC for authority. This shouldn’t be a pipe dream.

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