Summer of blackouts ahead? Blame the big methane leak

By Anne C. Mulkern | 04/06/2016 01:13 PM EDT

Electricity blackouts could hit Southern California on 14 days this summer, a side effect of the record-breaking Los Angeles-area methane leak, power officials said yesterday.

Electricity blackouts could hit Southern California on 14 days this summer, a side effect of the record-breaking Los Angeles-area methane leak, power officials said yesterday.

The leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site from October through February prompted a moratorium on injecting more fuel there while 114 wells undergo a safety review. Supplies in the underground reservoir are at less than a fifth the facility’s capacity.

Aliso Canyon normally plays a big role in regional electricity use, state energy officials said, especially in summer as people turn on air conditioners. Gas runs the area’s electricity power plants, and those plants use gas stored at Aliso Canyon to ramp up quickly when demand spikes.


"Aliso Canyon plays an essential role in maintaining both natural gas and electric reliability in the greater Los Angeles area," a draft emergency operating plan said. "The facility’s limited current operations create a distinct possibility of electricity service interruptions in the coming summer months."

There are roughly 14 days this summer when shortages of gas could force power outages affecting millions of utility customers, energy officials said. There are also nine days this winter when they could occur.

Officials didn’t identify the specific days. The estimate is based on historical averages of electricity demand and use of the Aliso Canyon facility. They said gas shortages could be compounded by unexpected changes in the weather or problems with pipelines or other equipment.

There could be "controlled outages" for an hour or two that are moved around, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission.

It’s the latest fallout from the Aliso Canyon disaster, which is now ranked as the worst gas leak in U.S. history by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from several schools. Leaked into the atmosphere was the methane equivalent of 2.72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 572,000 cars.

California blackouts, even controlled, would hark back to 2000 and 2001, after the state deregulated electricity. Gaming of the system by Enron Corp. and others, and subsequent power supply shortages, led to rolling blackouts. The state has made a concerted effort to prevent that from happening again.

Energy officials yesterday outlined 18 steps to limit the risk of blackouts. Utilities will be calling on residents and businesses to cut their power use on the hottest days, when air conditioners are a big drain on electricity.

Other recommended actions in the plan include using the 15 billion cubic feet of natural gas that was preserved in the Aliso Canyon facility during periods of peak demand. Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) operates the plant.

Also, the plan says, there should be "greater coordination among state and local gas and electrical utilities, more energy efficiency programs and closer matching of gas supply and demand by large gas customers."

However, the plan cautions, all the actions will only "reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of gas shortages this summer that are large enough to cause electricity interruptions for the region’s residents and businesses."

The plan says there will be added costs. Officials said they needed more study before they could give an estimate.

The California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission, California Independent System Operator, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) issued the emergency operating plan. They’ll also hold a community meeting Friday in the Los Angeles area to talk about recommended steps.

The plan is open for comments through April 22. After that, it will be revised and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Prioritizing lower gas use

There are 17 major gas-fired electric plants in the L.A. region, many near its southern end, the report says. They have a combined capacity of 9,838 megawatts, enough to serve 9.8 million homes. While all of the megawatts aren’t needed on many days, "most of this capacity operates on hot days, when electricity demand rises to support cooling needs met with air conditioning."

"SoCalGas relies on Aliso Canyon on these days to meet the hourly change in gas requirements as these gas-fired electric generators fire up and operate during peak hours," it adds. "Moreover, some of the 17 gas-fired generating plants must be available to produce quickly, in case of outages on the electricity system. Again, Aliso Canyon is the only source that can provide immediate gas supply in time to prevent collapse of operating pressures within the [L.A.] Basin."

In addition to state action, LADWP said it plans several moves to help keep the lights on. Those included curtailment of "physical gas hedging." The agency doesn’t buy gas from SoCalGas but instead buys its own, said Marcie Edwards, general manager with the L.A. agency.

LADWP would normally have purchased physical gas hedges, which consist of commitments to take a given quantity of gas supply at a price that is fixed and agreed upon in advance. But because of limitations imposed by not having Aliso Canyon available for storage, LADWP will not enter into agreements to take any fixed quantity of gas.

LADWP said it also would stop a system called "economic dispatch." The agency typically uses the most inexpensive resource first, Edwards said. When gas is tight this summer, it plans to use resources in a way that instead prioritizes reduced gas burn times.

One state senator said Aliso Canyon needs to stay closed right now, despite the risk of blackouts.

"We must do everything possible to avoid another disaster," state Sen. Fran Pavley (D) said. "Until that testing process has been completed and high-risk wells are shut down and isolated from the storage reservoir, the moratorium on injections will remain in place."

Pavley added, "Any rush to resume activities at Aliso Canyon could risk another leak, which would have far worse consequences for Southern California Gas, as well as the health and safety of nearby homeowners."

There’s a need for "urgent short-term measures to conserve energy in the coming months," she said. The assessment from energy officials, she said, "also sounds an alarm for expediting a long-term strategy for California to move away from its overreliance on natural gas."

‘The boogeyman hiding in the closet’

SoCalGas said the emergency plan "recognizes the crucial role Aliso Canyon plays in providing reliable energy service to Southern California."

"SoCalGas’ number one priority for more than 145 years has been to provide our customers and communities in Southern California with safe and reliable energy," the company, a division of Sempra Energy, said in a statement.

The company noted the closure of the regional nuclear power plant San Onofre, which was shuttered in 2012 following a leak in one of the operating units. The facility is partly owned by Sempra Energy.

"The interdependence of natural gas with electricity generation has become increasingly complex in recent years due to the enhanced role of renewable power sources (wind and solar), combined with the planned decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station," the SoCalGas statement says. ""The focus on Aliso Canyon illustrates the underlying dynamics of gas/grid interoperability. It is one factor among many that shape the strategic planning of our state’s energy supply."

Tim O’Connor, director of the California Oil and Gas Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, said natural gas as a power source has a "stranglehold" on the region. He said the alert about this summer brings it to light.

"This is a problem that’s been baked into the Southern California system for years. The fact that it’s in this report is eye-opening," he said. "It’s been the boogeyman hiding in the closet; we’ve just never opened the closet door, really."

O’Connor said there’s been greater reliance on natural gas especially as the state pushes for more renewable power. The mandate for the portion of electricity that must come from green energy has been increased from 20 percent initially to 33 percent and now 50 percent by 2030.

But he said there are options for keeping the lights on that use clean energy sources. The state should be prioritizing energy storage and demand response or getting users to cut power use when needed.

There needs to be compensation for those measures, he said. Right now, the market pays energy sources for the "value of the electrons you sell," and not any extra benefits. "You really don’t have a level playing field."