Poor Planning Left California Short of Electricity in a Heat Wave

Everybody had known for days that a heat wave was about to wallop California. Yet a dashboard maintained by the organization that manages the state’s electric grid showed that scores of power plants were down or producing below peak strength, a stunning failure of planning, poor record keeping and sheer bad luck.

All told, power plants with the ability to produce almost 6,000 megawatts, or about 15 percent of the electricity on California’s grid, were reported as being offline when temperatures surged last Friday. The shortfall, which experts believe officials should have been able to avoid, forced managers of the grid to order rolling blackouts in the middle of a pandemic and as wildfires across the state were spreading.

But even if all of the missing capacity had been available, California would probably still have struggled to deliver enough electricity to homes where families were cranking up air-conditioners. That’s because the manager of the grid and state regulators were relying on power from plants that either had permanently shut down or could not have realistically achieved the targets set for them.

For example, the California Public Utilities Commission had assumed that hydroelectric plants would provide as much as 8,000 megawatts when demand peaked this summer. But that number appears to have failed to take into account low water levels at many dams, including the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project high in the Sierra Nevada. And those plants delivered only 5,514 megawatts last Friday, according to data from the nonprofit that manages the state’s grid and maintains records about power plants, the California Independent System Operator.

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