Senate Committee Looks Beyond Aliso Canyon

12 May 2016

State energy regulators and utilities signaled May 10 that the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field may not play the central role to energy reliability in Southern California that it has in the past.

They discussed both the short-term prospects for energy reliability and the longer-term need for the facility at a May 10 oversight hearing by the Senate Energy, Utilities, & Communications Committee.

Panel chair Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) opened the hearing by asking state energy officials and utility executives if Aliso Canyon had become “antiquated” and should be replaced by a new approach. He suggested better use of pipelines or gas storage facilities placed above ground.

The committee held the hearing to review a state study on the likelihood of blackouts this summer and a plan drafted by energy agencies to mitigate the prospect. Aliso Canyon is effectively closed in the wake of a major natural gas leak that ran from October 2015 through most of February with only enough gas left for emergencies.

At the hearing, state officials and utility representatives acknowledged that looking at long-term alternatives to the storage field may well be possible.

“In the summer, the problem is not that there is not enough pipeline capacity,” said Colin Cushnie, Southern California Edison vice president of energy procurement management. There is enough pipeline capacity, he said, but it is difficult to precisely match gas deliveries with electrical generation due to forecast uncertainties.

Looking beyond the summer, he said Edison is not advocating that the entire storage field be returned to service.

“If we want to move away from reliance on this field we need to have a plan and design,” warned California Independent System Operator Mark Rothleder. He explained that the state assessment on outages and the accompanying mitigation plan are focused only on this summer.

Meanwhile, California Public Utilities Commission Energy Division Director Ed Randolph told the committee that the commission is planning to begin studying whether Aliso Canyon is needed on a long-term basis “in the very near future.” The study is required under recently enacted legislation, SB 380, although the new law doesn’t require the CPUC to initiate the study before July 2017.

“Can the [Southern California energy] system operate without Aliso Canyon? In the long-term sure,” Randolph said. He cited the CPUC’s recent steps in the Los Angeles area as what may be needed to at least minimize the need for the facility.

Recently, for instance, he said the commission is accelerating deployment of distributed battery storage, solar rooftop installations, solar thermal water heating, energy efficiency, and a variety of other measures. While the measures won’t make a huge difference this summer, he explained, they will help reduce the need for natural gas power in a significant way next summer as installations of the carbon-free technologies accumulate.

Meanwhile, Randolph said that this summer better coordination between electric utilities, SoCal Gas and gas providers will be a key to avoiding blackouts, as well as enhanced appeals for residents in the area to conserve energy.

Bill Powers, an energy engineer who critiqued the state study on Aliso Canyon, called improved coordination between utilities, generators, and gas suppliers the “roadmap for how to operate the system without Aliso.” He maintained that requiring generators to carefully match their gas orders to their generation requirements within a 5 percent margin of error should eliminate the risk of blackouts.

A SoCal Gas proposal to require that is pending before the CPUC.

“We’re talking about the transition to a decarbonized future,” said Bob Tang, Southern California Public Power Authority director of utilities. In the interim, he agreed that better coordination between the power and gas industries will be important to maintaining energy reliability.

—William J. Kelly

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