Juice: Grid Cooperation

By Published On: May 4, 2012

Findings of a federal investigation released May 1 point to the continuing balkanization of the state’s grid as a key culprit in the massive power outage that hit Southern California, Arizona, and Northern Baja California Sept. 8, 2011. Of particular concern is the division between the California Independent System Operator and the Imperial Irrigation District. The good news is the blackout caused no loss of life or limb, or damage to equipment. On top of that, power was restored reasonably quickly to the 2.7 million affected utility customers. The bad news is such an outage, or even worse, could occur again unless transmission operators do a better job of sharing information and coordinating operations, especially in the San Diego area. Steve Berberich--chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator, one of the biggest, best equipped, and most sophisticated grid operator organizations in the West--pointed out that the grid operator has for years tried to promote more information sharing and cooperation between the state’s numerous transmission organizations, which include munis and irrigation districts, like IID. “We’ll push it hard now,” said Berberich following release of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp. findings on the outage May 1 (see story page 4). Those federal organizations found that even though the grid in Arizona, California, and Mexico is linked together, none of the five organizations operating the affected parts of the transmission system had a complete view--much less enough control--of what was happening as it unfolded. Instead, each of the organizations--CAISO, Arizona Public Service, IID, the Western Area Power Administration, and Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad--in effect found themselves wearing blinders that blocked their peripheral vision. Not even the Western Electric Coordinating Council, which is supposed to have an overview, had a complete picture of what was going on. “Big deal,” some might say. What’s a cascading outage once every 10 or 20 years--particularly when power is restored before ice cream becomes simply cream? Sure, it highlights the need to cooperate more, but it’s hardly the end of the world. In the wake of the report, there undoubtedly will be more focus on information sharing and cooperation, at least for a while. As human nature has it, without long-term changes underpinned by structural reforms and new technology, it’s likely that after a few years without any outages, the various grid operators eventually will drift apart as faces and priorities change. No long-term unity on vanilla, just to each its rocky road. That could spell trouble in California, where operating the grid is expected to become more complex in the future due to the increasing reliance on intermittent renewable energy, points out Berberich. Nowhere will this be truer than at the southern end of the state, he adds, where San Diego Gas & Electric’s territory effectively is a transmission “cul de sac.” Berberich’s point must be not only well taken but acted on quickly, particularly as the vaunted Sunrise Powerlink opens next month. Here’s why: Sunrise Powerlink will make IID’s transmission system more central to providing SDG&E with power. In effect, IID’s transmission system increasingly will be used to wheel a growing amount of renewable power from planned developments in the Imperial Valley and nearby desert areas to SDG&E’s new line. Imperial’s system--if developments go as planned--also would wheel more power to Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. As these utilities eventually shed their use of coal power now traveling on lines completely separate from IID, more of their power is likely to actually flow through Imperial’s system. CAISO and IID’s efforts to cooperate mark a good start, but to make sure that increased cooperation becomes permanent, it’s time for California lawmakers to hold hearings and explore whether legislation may be needed to institutionalize information sharing and any needed technological improvements. Lawmakers should focus on CAISO and IID, but also look at cooperation between CAISO and other transmission operators in California and even out-of-state. It’s understandable that IID wants to maintain independence, but in exchange for the money it and its region stand to make by supplying and transmitting power to the more populous areas of Southern California it needs to give something in exchange. That should be to better integrate its operations with CAISO’s to insure reliability. The federal investigation, the opening of the Sunrise Powerlink, and the planned construction of large renewable energy projects in Imperial Valley provide the perfect occasion for hearings and development of any needed legislation.

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