Heat wave still threatens California's power grid with outages

California’s power grid operators avoided a third day of rolling blackouts but kept a wary eye on the thermometer Tuesday as an ongoing heat wave continued to stress the electrical system.

The California Independent System Operator had warned Monday that as many as 3.3 million homes and businesses would be affected by an evening emergency order that would have required utilities to stage rotating, two-hour outages among customers.

But the order never was issued and the warning was canceled shortly before 8 p.m.

Pleas for people to leave their air conditioners at higher temperatures and avoid using washing machines and other major appliances seemed to have worked.

“Thank you for conserving,” California ISO said in a tweet.

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However, grid managers warned that the threat of outages remained as temperatures were expected to hit triple digits again in many areas of the state. The National Weather Service said it may take until Friday or Saturday before excess heat watches and warnings ease.

Michelle Leopold, co-owner of six Ace hardware stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, said she sold 56 wading pools, two air conditioning units and a number of generators Saturday. Fans were flying off the shelves, she said. She’s grateful her employees have not contracted the coronavirus and her stores are even hiring.

“You look at the blessings in this crazy time because there’s not much else to look at,” she said, laughing.

Scorching weather has hit other Western states, making it harder for California to import extra power.

“What we have is a situation where the entire region is more than hot, it’s extremely hot,” said Steve Berberich, California ISO’s president and CEO. “We can’t get the energy that we would normally get from out of state because it’s being used to serve loads natively. That would probably account for another 4,000 to 5,000 megawatts and could have very well have closed the gap.”

California ISO has struggled to reduce the electrical demand since last Friday, when it issued the first rolling blackous in nearly 20 years. The three biggest utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — turned off power to more than 410,000 homes and businesses for about an hour at a time until the emergency declaration ended 3 1/2 hours later.

A second but shorter outage hit Saturday evening, affecting more than 200,000 customers.

On Monday, California ISO scrambled to avoid what would have been one of the largest series of blackouts in state history. They would have been far larger than the estimated 1.3 million homes and businesses affected by one outage during a 2001 energy crisis. They also would have far outstripped the nearly 1 million customers impacted last fall when Pacific Gas & Electric cut power over sweeping areas of its territory to avoid sparking wildfires by having power lines fall or get hit with tree branches during hot, dry, windy weather.

An irate Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency proclamation Sunday allowing some energy users and utilities to tap backup energy sources. Newsom also sent a letter demanding that the state Energy Commission, state Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent System Operator investigate the blackouts.