Death Valley Stop Sign 0618

A heat warning sign in Death Valley. Electric grids in California and the Southwest held up this week during the first heat wave of the year.

A searing heat wave and worsening drought across the West had electricity customers and grid operators holding their breath about grid reliability, but major outages were avoided in California and across the West.

On June 17, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency proclamation suspending certain air- and water-discharge permitting requirements and allowing the use of backup power generation. The proclamation expires at 11:59 p.m. on June 19.

Conservation efforts and slightly lower temperatures on June 17 abated reliability concerns in the Golden State that day. The California ISO on June 17 called a Flex Alert asking system users to cut demand in evening hours and extended it through the next day. The ISO lost about 1,100 MW of natural gas for June 18, but another 600 MW of gas resources that were not expected came on line, CAISO Senior VP and COO Mark Rothleder said on a June 17 conference call with reporters.

On the morning of June 17, Rothleder provided more detailed perspective on CAISO's situation, telling attendees at NewsData's 5th Annual Pacific Northwest Wholesale Power Markets Conference that he might have to cut away from his presentation if there was a grid emergency.

"As we speak, we're kind of living the summer right now," Rothleder said. He repeated CAISO's mantra that the ISO is "guardedly optimistic" about this summer. CAISO is expecting an additional 3,000 MW or so of resources for this summer compared with last year. It is also looking closely at hydro resources, which are expected to be available at peak hours, Rothleder said.

As the afternoon of June 17 progressed, slight cooling of the weather and conservation efforts eased stress on the grid. June 17 demand peaked at 41,364 MW at 4:55 p.m., when supply was at 41,790 MW. At that time, renewables were providing 12,286 MW; natural gas 22,181 MW; large hydro 2,748 MW; imports 2,312 MW; nuclear 2,279 MW; coal 19 MW; and batteries were charging, pulling 35 MW from the grid.

But net demand—demand minus nondispatchable wind and utility solar—is the peak system operators worry about, and net demand peaked at 7:30 p.m., at 36,357 MW, when total supply was 40,626 MW.

Ed Randolph, the California PUC's Energy Division executive director, said at the NewsData conference that last summer's rolling blackouts revealed the critical nature of interstate cooperation. The CPUC has done a lot of work to coordinate with other regulatory bodies in the Pacific Northwest, such as sharing information and increasing forecasting, he said.

"Some are closer to rotating outages than they would like to admit out there," he said of other states in the West. "A lot of the Southwest is between a little and a lot nervous right now."

Randolph also said a "portion" of 2,400 MW of qualifying capacity for summer has been delayed due to permitting issues and COVID-19-related supply chain issues. He said he has become "an expert" on tracking container ship traffic at the Port of Long Beach, and that the CPUC and the governor's office are coordinating with the port to expedite delivery of critical infrastructure-related materials. Randolph said that in recent years the CPUC has tried to carefully tailor resources to what is needed, after getting pressure from the state Legislature four years ago about procuring too much capacity.

Arizona Public Service spokeswoman Jill Hanks told Clearing Up on June 17 that the utility made no calls for conservation or demand reduction.

In Nevada, equipment failure at a substation left more than 20,000 NV Energy customers in the Reno area without power during the evening of June 17. However, the utility said that problem was not related to heat or demand, but was caused by a breaker failure at a substation. The event started at 6:30 p.m. and about 80 percent of customers had power restored by 8 p.m. All customers were restored by 10:47 p.m.

The Southwest Power Pool issued a resource alert from June 14 at 9 a.m. to June 16 at 9 p.m. But it said it was operating as usual during the high-load summer event and was positioned to meet demand and respond to contingencies. SPP oversees the bulk electric grid and wholesale power market across 17 states, including Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas performed better than anticipated during the heat wave, despite record demand that coincided with a June 14 request from the grid operator to reduce electricity use through June 18.

Power producers on the state's isolated grid reported approximately 11 GW of generation on forced outages as the workweek began, including 8 GW of thermal generation out for repairs, according to an ERCOT news release. Woody Rickerson, ERCOT's VP of grid planning and operations, said the organization would conduct a thorough analysis to determine why so many units were out of service. "This is unusual for this early in the summer season," he said.

Local media reported its dissatisfaction with ERCOT's lack of information on the capacity shortage later in the week, but 1,200 MW of thermal generation resources came back on line overnight Monday, the grid operator said June 15. Wind generation, which had reached a high of 20 GW on June 11, fell to nearly nothing at some points from June 13 through June 15, when temperatures for most of Texas' major cities were in the mid-to-high 90s.

ERCOT said in a June 15 news release that Texans responded strongly to the conservation request and significantly reduced demand Monday afternoon, despite setting a new record for June of 69,943 MW on the ERCOT system. The previous June demand record of 69,123 MW was set in 2018, and grid operators on June 14 had forecast the potential for demand to exceed 73,000 MW.

The grid operator on June 15 reiterated its call to reduce electricity usage between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through June 18 as temperatures declined, generation resources came back on line and the wind picked up.

Real-time prices on the grid wholesale power market climbed toward $1,500 June 13 and 14, while day-ahead prices on the system approached that peak June 15 as wind resources plummeted.

In El Paso Electric's territory, which includes parts of southern New Mexico and is on the Western Interconnection rather than the ERCOT grid, temperatures in the triple digits and other factors led to outages over the weekend that the utility said affected 5 percent of its customers for three hours or less. An outage at an EPE substation in Las Cruces, N.M., on June 15 disrupted power for about 1,950 customers for approximately 1 1/2 hours. The cause is under investigation, EPE said on Twitter.

Temperatures elsewhere in the Southwest soared above 100 F for much of the week. Utilities in the region reminded customers on social media to raise their thermostat settings, pre-cool their homes and draw their shades to save energy. They avoided formally calling for voluntary conservation or initiating demand-response events for program participants.

Monsoon season in the Desert Southwest begins the week of June 21, and residents are hoping storms will bring some moisture and heat relief. A powerful storm in Colorado on June 16, however, toppled power lines and cut power to Xcel customers in the Fort Collins area during hot weather. Crews worked through the night to repair the damage and restore service.

The heat wave and capacity concerns come as severe drought is raising the alarm across the West. Between June 8 and June 15, portions of Montana and the Pacific Northwest saw moisture conditions nominally improve, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Coastal Washington and Oregon benefited from "a late-season atmospheric river event" that contributed to local one- and two-category improvements, according to the Drought Monitor.

"Most of the West region remained in moderate, severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. In central California, farmers have been warned about potential water cutoffs, while wildfire concerns and firework restrictions are prevalent in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico," it said.

Lake Powell is at only 35 percent of capacity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's June 14 report. The full Lower Colorado River system remains at only 42 percent of capacity, with 25,011 thousand acre-feet of water.

Salt River Project storage is at 74 percent of capacity as of June 17. That is 21 percent less than year-ago levels, when the system was at 95 percent of capacity, according to SRP's daily report.

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Associate Editor - California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.