Expert: 'Power Shortage' Threat Overblown in Southern California

Despite reports in the press that the continuing outage of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant will cause "Enron-style" power shortages throughout Southern California this summer, one expert on the electrical grid says such fears are exaggerated.

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A report in Bloomberg News claims that the combination of the offline plant at San Onofre and a bleak forecast for hydroelectric generation in the state due to drought means that the state could face power shortages unrivaled since the Enron scandal in the early 2000s. In their story, Bloomberg reporters Naureen S. Malik and Lynn Doan quote Pennsylvania energy consultant Stephen Schork as saying "California may see the biggest test since Enron manipulated the market. If you have a reactor down and you don't have as much hydro, your fuel for air conditioning is going to have to come from gas."

Malik and Doan also spoke with Michael Blaha at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. in Houston, who credited hydro for fulling the gap as San Onofre stayed offline through the summer of 2012.

But according to engineer and frequent ReWire tipster Bill Powers, an expert on power generation and transmission issues, enough new gas-fired capacity in Southern California is scheduled to come online by the peak power consumption season this summer to nearly make up for San Onofre being offline even without any power from hydroelectric power plants. In the Los Angeles Basin load area alone, Powers tells ReWire, 1,900 megawatts of gas-fired plants are scheduled to come online in the first half of 2013. San Onofre's capacity? 2,150 megawatts.

Powers points out that it's not just him saying so: he directs our attention to a briefing document on San Onofre's downtime composed by the California Independent System Operator (CaISO), which runs the power grid for 80 percent of the state, including the Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric service areas, which are the portions of the grid most affected by San Onofre's outage.

According to CaISO, while there is room for concern about running low on power reserves as a result of San Onofre being down, the grid operator characterizes those concerns as applying mainly to San Diego County and southern Orange County rather than the entire southern section of the state. If this summer's heat hits a ten-year high, CaISO runs the chance of having to engage in "load shedding" -- a method of reducing demand more commonly known as rolling blackouts.

But, says CaISO, a combination of upgrading transmission lines near Long Beach, adding capacitors to regulate transmission line voltage, and increasing funding for the agency's Flex Alert program should address the reliability issues on the grid without needing to add more generation capacity over the summer.

And given that the state is likely to have a gigawatt or more of new solar power coming into the grid compared to last summer -- much of that in Southern California -- those peak demand hours may not be all that scary this year, even without San Onofre.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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