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SoCal Wildfire Carries Implications For Hobbled Gas Storage

As first responders and utility crews worked in and around the Blue Cut wildfire surrounding a major highway artery serving Southern California on Thursday, energy analysts and state grid operating officials said the closed Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field in north Los Angeles County could become more problematic because of added stress on the grid from the wildfires.

So far, officials at both Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) told NGI on Thursday that they have not sustained any major operational impacts from the wildfire, which had consumed more than 30,000 acres in the Cajon Pass within a day of breaking out earlier in the week.

Separately, on Wednesday SCE attorneys representing all of its large industrial power users, filed a motion with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to extend the current summer reliability measures in effect and adopt other measures for winter reliability, "pending the return of Southern California Gas Co.'s [SoCalGas] Aliso Canyon storage field."

Calling the Aliso Canyon facility "critical" to reliable gas operations in the region, the CPUC filing noted that the SCE customer coalition and SoCalGas are currently carrying out settlement discussions on a winter reliability plan, but that absent a deal being reached by Sept. 8, the state regulators should adopt a winter plan.

"Winter reliability is critical to all customers, but the particular challenges during [that time] are driven in large part by core [residential/small business] customer requirements," the CPUC filing said. In the summer, electric power needs and industrial customers use 80% of the gas sendout, but in the winter, 60% of the gas used goes to core customers.

Even when unencumbered by wildfires and long-term maintenance needs, the transmission grid in Southern California has a limited ability to pull electricity supplies into the region, and it is strained even more when local gas-fired power plants are unable to operate, according to one local industry observer speaking on a webinar Thursday reviewing the situation at Aliso Canyon.

Over the past three winters, supplies were pulled from Aliso almost daily (88% of the days) during the 151-day winter heating season. In  the summer, gas is needed from Aliso only about one in every three days.

At minimum this winter, state and industry sources have estimated that Aliso needs to have at least 45 Bcf of its 86 Bcf capacity in storage, or three times the 15 Bcf that is stored there during its current idle, well-testing period. The large customer filing told the CPUC it was unlikely there could be that much gas in Aliso for this winter.

"Modified core balancing measurement and daily imbalance trading protocols [winter reliability measures] will enhance existing tools to manage system reliability, and will assist all customers, including SoCalGas' gas acquisition department, in mitigating the impact of increased operational flow orders," the large customers told the CPUC, recommending that regulators extend summer measures beyond Nov. 30 and adopt the additional winter steps.

As of mid-afternoon Thursday, SCE officials said they were establishing two staging areas in the Blue Cut fire area, preparing to start the rebuilding of poles and other equipment and restoring the nearly 1,000 customers left without electricity. At the same time, they report said "a number of key transmission lines, sub-transmission lines, substations and distribution circuits remain threatened by the fire."

For LADWP, a high-ranking official said that while two of its 287 kV lines have sustained fire damage, there has been no impact on the city utility's system because it has had its east-to-west transmission system down for maintenance. As a result, LADWP before the fire had offloaded the transmission lines that sustained fire damage. Thus, losing the two lines didn't create any problems.

Both LADWP and SCE, however, remain concerned about the uncertainty surrounding Aliso Canyon.

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