California officials say Western states neared blackouts
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – California power managers say 65 million customers in 11 Western states and parts of Canada and Mexico were at risk of blackouts last week when several power suppliers failed to deliver electricity to the region as promised.
Gregg Fishman, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, said during last Thursday’s incident, the balance was so close that the unexpected loss of a single power plant could have triggered the region’s worst outage in five years.
Unlike natural gas, which can be stored, electricity must be used as it is produced, creating a delicate balance of supply and demand. The ISO schedules deliveries of electricity from generators and power marketers to utilities. Outages happen when those megawatts arrive late or in lesser quantities than expected.
Fishman said such stability threats to the power grid have occurred with alarming frequency.
”We have seen a number of generators not responding appropriately to our orders to dispatch and in this case we did not get the power that was scheduled through our grid,” Fishman said.
However, another organization concerned with how electricity is transported said last week’s missed deliveries were not dire enough to cause blackouts, though an official acknowledged they were a concern.
”It’s very important that all of the participants in the operation of the electric system abide by the reliability requirements,” said Bob Dintelman, assistant executive director of the Western Systems Coordinating Council in Salt Lake City.
On Wednesday, the ISO warned generators to deliver power on time, and asked federal regulators to investigate last week’s incident. In a report, the ISO points to two recent examples, but does not name the offenders.
In one case, a generator scheduled more power than it was capable of delivering and fell more than 1,600 megawatts short. A megawatt is enough to power roughly 750 homes. Separately, a generator did not follow ISO orders to deliver power needed to stabilize the system.
”They have discussed that issue with us,” said Tamara Young, a spokeswoman with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. She was not sure when or how the FERC would act.
The possibility of rolling blackouts increasingly has spread from California to the entire West as federal price controls designed to steer power toward California have taken effect.
Jan Smutney-Jones, head of the Independent Energy Producers Association, an industry trade group, said confusion over FERC pricing rules which peg the price of power to a variety of factors may have led to the missed deliveries.
”I think it’s important that FERC pick up the issue rapidly so we don’t face similar problems in the future,” Smutney-Jones said. ”I think it’s very clear that system reliability is something everybody highly values and I don’t think anybody out there is trying to deliberately cause problems.”
Fishman said on the last two days of May, some power companies charged more than the price limit suggested by FERC, but failed to justify their prices as required. The ISO has asked federal regulators to investigate, and hopes FERC will rescind questionable high prices and instead charge the sellers the set price for that day.
An initial ISO review of power sales records showed 5,319 electricity transactions that exceeded the price limits by a total of $1.4 million on May 30 and 31.
The last major failure on the Western grid was on July 2, 1996, when a tree growing too close to a high-voltage line in Idaho sparked outages across the region that affected 2 million customers.
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