Covid Is Making It Harder for California to Avert Blackouts

California is scrambling to prevent yet another round of rolling blackouts this weekend as heat strains the grid.

The pandemic is making that task harder than ever before.

The first step — forecasting electricity demand — used to be a straightforward matter of analyzing historical consumption patterns and current weather conditions. But the coronavirus has upended the way people live, work and consume electricity. Going back through decades’ worth of electricity data, there is no precedent for what’s happening now.

“The pandemic has changed our forecasting profiles,” Eric Schmitt, vice president of operations at the California Independent System Operator, said during a media briefing on Thursday.

Grid operators across the country have had to repeatedly recalibrate their models this summer as lockdowns disrupted economic activity and then partial reopenings shifted energy use again. Business districts that once devoured electricity remain largely empty, while suburbs that used to be quiet during the weekday are humming. That means more electricity has to get to new places at new times.

While the California ISO said Thursday it didn’t expect blackouts during this weekend’s heat wave, energy demand for Sunday is expected to exceed that of Aug. 14, when millions of people were plunged into darkness in the first rolling outages since the 2001 energy crisis.

“If that forecast is realized, Sunday would be the highest-load day we’ve seen so far this summer,” said BloombergNEF analyst Brian Bartholomew.

Weekends were once a low-demand period, but they’re starting to look more like working days, forcing grid operators to line up more supplies than they would have previously. And holiday weekends are especially tricky to forecast because it’s hard to account for the impact of travel on electricity demand.

“It’s going to get more challenging,” said Wade Schauer, research director of Americas power and renewables at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. “Behavior is going to be different this time.”

The weather adds another layer of complexity. Temperatures are forecast to be 10 degrees to 20 degrees above normal with parts of Los Angeles seen reaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius), according to the National Weather Service.

The dry conditions also mean there are fewer hydropower resources to call upon, very little wind is expected during the critical afternoon hours and natural gas plants that have been running hard in the heat are at greater risk of tripping offline, according to Schauer. California is grappling with finding enough power to offset the loss of solar production as the sun sets.

“As to actually whether there will be any rolling blackouts, a lot of things have to align,” he said. “It all comes down to the heat.”

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