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FERC staff examining Calif. blackouts, will present findings in November

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff is looking into the mid-August rolling blackouts in California and slated to share its findings in November, Chairman Neil Chatterjee said during the agency’s Sept. 17 open meeting.

Loads across the country have been lessened from their norms due to the coronavirus pandemic, but demand still spiked high enough during a nearly weeklong heatwave in the West to force the California ISO to order rotating outages Aug. 14 and Aug. 15 to maintain grid reliability.

Some state energy officials and power industry experts have said the emergency measures were prompted by multiple interrelated conditions, including a lack of available imports, while conservatives and the Trump campaign have contended that California’s climate policies and renewables push were to blame.

Chatterjee said the commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp. were in consultation with CASIO in mid-August and early September as the grid operator dealt with controlled firm load shedding, high prices and multiple calls for energy conservation and are continuing to have follow-up discussions.

The chairman announced during the Sept. 17 meeting that he had tasked his staff during the prior week “to examine these heat-related events from reliability, operations and markets perspectives.” He expects staff to present "any high-level factual findings" about the event during the FERC's November open meeting.

FERC’s culpability

U.S. senators earlier in the week insinuated that FERC may have dropped the ball with regards to its grid reliability and resource adequacy duties. Several Republican senators during a Sept. 16 hearing posed questions to the two nominees awaiting confirmation to FERC on what FERC’s role and responsibilities are in ensuring that rolling blackouts like those experienced in California do not occur.

Mark Christie, the Republican nominee and a Virginia state utility regulator, said it is too soon to know whether FERC was as cognizant as it should have been about California's reliability issues or who or what was responsible for the rolling blackouts.

“Generating resource decisions are largely a state-level decision about what to build and what to shut down,” Christie said. “FERC's job, of course, is to be paying attention … and making sure these RTOs and ISOs, like the California ISO, are doing their reliability planning, but even the ISO can't force the state to approve a generating plant.”

Christie said he looked forward to seeing the results of investigations into what led to the blackouts in California. “We don't accept blackouts in America,” he said. “We want power 24/7, 365, and anything less than that is not meeting the standard that we want.”

FERC Commissioner Richard Glick, currently the sole Democrat on the panel, applauded Chatterjee for tasking staff with looking deeper into the incident and actions prompted by the extraordinarily high temperatures in California.

“A lot has been said about the rolling blackout and not all of it has been informed by the facts,” Glick said at the FERC meeting. “I think we have a responsibility to assess what actually happened and why, not to try to make points to achieve preconceived policy or political objectives.”

Glick added, “I hope the process and results of the analysis will be transparent so that the public and various stakeholders can identify the actual causes and what, if any, changes are necessary to avoid a repeat during the next extreme heatwave.”

Climate change

Glick also noted that the West Coast, faced with extremely hot and dry weather, is battling devastating wildfires that have taken out transmission lines.

More than 3.4 million acres have burned in California due to wildfires so far in 2020, and the smoke from those fires prevent consumers from opening windows for airflow, causing more people to rely on air conditioning, increasing power demand.

And in the Southeast, back-to-back hurricanes have brought flooding and powerful winds that have knocked out power, Glick noted.

Specifically, hurricanes Laura and Sally have left almost 485,000 power customers without service in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, as of Sept. 17, weakening power demand and power prices across the South. And according to the National Hurricane Center, a tropical disturbance in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico has a 90% chance of forming into another tropical depression.

“I would be remiss if I didn't mention the role that climate change is playing in these events, which are occurring more frequently and with greater ferocity,” Glick said. “I'm amazed that we are still having a debate in this country about whether climate change is real. Instead, we need to turn our attention to making the grid more resilient to what will undoubtedly be increasing challenges.”

Jasmin Melvin is a reporter with S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.