California’s Heat Wave Challenge: Fires and and Aging Gas Plants

July 4, 2021

Big problems, hot, dry weather, combined with heavy winds – common conditions in California summer – can lead to sparking and fires – which has been a huge liability burden for California utilities.

In unprecedented drought conditions, with the hot season just beginning, and already setting records, many hydro facilities are well below normal capacity, and may not be able to produce full power when needed. California has added a lot of new storage since the rolling blackouts of last year, but is it enough to fill the potential gap?
This summer will be a test.

In addition, keeping older natural gas plants in service, for backup in emergency conditions, has proven unreliable.

LA Times:

Three decades-old power plants whose lives were extended to get California through another sweltering summer broke down during June’s western heat wave, raising new questions about the state’s reliance on the facilities to avoid rolling blackouts.

California made it through the broiling week without the power cuts it experienced last August. But the plants’ failures underscore a problem for the state amid a hot, dry summer that is also expected to compromise its hydropower production. Natural gas plants — particularly the oldest ones — are prone to falter in the heat.

“We have a lot of old clunkers that are supposed to be around when the situation gets critical, and they are breaking left and right,” said Gary Ackerman, former executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum.

That they are breaking down in June “is not a good sign,” he said, as hotter months loom ahead.

State officials are under tremendous pressure to avoid a repeat of last summer’s blackouts. If they strike again, the crisis could prove politically costly to Gov. Gavin Newsom ahead of a recall election this fall.

During the peak of the June heat wave, almost 11,000 megawatts of capacity — enough to power 8 million homes if running at full steam — was offline due to outages, according to data from California’s grid operator. Many of those outages affected natural gas power plants. 

The state has to make up for such shortfalls by reducing large-scale energy usage and importing power from other states, among other measures. But with intensifying heat waves scorching all parts of the west, California can’t rely as much on its neighbors for extra power.

As the state geared up for the worst stretch of a heat wave on June 17 and 18, plants statewide were asked to defer maintenance-related downtime so that they could generate as much power as possible. But units at three of the four plants whose lives were extended last year were out throughout that week, an analysis of plant outage data from the California Independent System Operator shows.

Those failures come as the state prepares to consider a second such extension for a facility in Redondo Beach over the objections of environmentalists, state lawmakers and the city’s mayor. The “once-through” cooling technology used by the four plants fouls ocean water, harms marine life and violates California’s own environmental regulations. But state water officials agreed to delay enforcement of the water-use rules last fall after the Public Utilities Commission said it needed the plants to meet demand during peak hours.

Keep the facilities online for up to three more years, the PUC said, until 3,300 MW of clean electricity comes online to replace them — enough to power nearly 2.5 million homes.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), who represents Redondo Beach, said the state can’t wait that long. “The energy demand for extreme heat caused by climate change should not be met by continuing to contribute to climate change with these unneeded natural gas power plants,” he said.

Muratsuchi tried to pass legislation last year to shut down all four of the old facilities. Now, he says, “all options are on the table.”

Two of the four plants also experienced outages last August, CAISO data shows — on the same days that power supply fell short of energy demand, triggering rolling blackouts for two nights, the first of their kind since the Enron-caused electricity crisis in the early 2000s.

“The state has put itself between a rock and a hard place by relying so much on these plants,” said Bill Powers, a mechanical engineer who works with the Clean Coalition, a group promoting renewable energy and grid modernization. “You don’t want that plant taking a final shot in the big ballgame.”

AES Corporation, a Virginia-based company that owns plants in Redondo Beach and Long Beach, confirmed its facilities’ mid-June outages — saying they were “adversely impacted” by high temperatures, boiler tube leaks and restricted cooling water inlet flows due to debris.

“AES has invested, and continues to invest, in preventative maintenance activities so that these plants are available when called upon by the CAISO to support system reliability needs,” Mark Miller, AES market business leader for California, said in a statement, adding that the plants still produced some power in June. The company’s Huntington Beach plant, which also uses once-through cooling, did not go down during the June heat wave.

The Houston-headquartered GenOn, which owns the Ormond Beach Generating Station in Oxnard, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Both of Ormond Beach’s units experienced unplanned outages on June 17. A day later, one Ormond Beach unit was still offline.

Preliminary federal data for 2020 show that the three plants generated 855,000 megawatt-hours of electricity from June through September, which their owners say shows they are still needed.

Until mid-June, CAISO made little information available about such outages, disclosing only self-reported company data from a point-in-time snapshot around 8:30 a.m., hours from evening peak demand. The daily reports didn’t list the cause of each outage, when it started or how long it lasted. Now the grid operator discloses more details, including the cause and duration of each outage and what time it occurred. 

On June 17, the hottest day of the heat wave, more than half of the outages recorded at the three once-through cooling plants were caused by equipment failures or equipment in danger of imminent failure, the new data show. Some outages were reportedly for “plant maintenance,” despite the request from CAISO asking facilities to defer scheduled maintenance until after the heat wave.

State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) said the outages undermine the justification for keeping the four plants alive. His district includes the Redondo Beach Generating Station, which had units down throughout the week of the June heat wave.

“This is becoming a pattern,” Allen said. “And from my perspective, it proves the city’s point that it’s not a necessary part of the region’s grid resiliency.”

4 Responses to “California’s Heat Wave Challenge: Fires and and Aging Gas Plants”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I’m really liking the idea of burying new major lines along highway and railway right-of-ways.

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