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SoCal Winter Assessment Revisited: Core Customers At Risk, CPUC Head Says

Overlooked in last month's rollout of the latest winter energy assessment for Southern California were comments by the head of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), indicating that unlike last winter, residential and small business customers could be at risk of natural gas shortages.

CPUC President Michael Picker said the state regulatory panel is "very concerned" about the ability of Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) to serve its core customers in the face of heightened demand days this month and next.

"Particularly if we have four or five days, or a whole week, of high demand that is driven by residential heating loads," Picker said, "tt becomes a low-occurrence, high-consequence event."

Picker noted that outages to millions of residential customers can require weeks for SoCalGas to restore service because it involves door-to-door appliance inspections and relighting pilots.

"Anyone who has heard me talk about this before knows this has always been one of my gravest concerns -- that we reach multiple cold days in Southern California, and we start to see outages to residential customers," he said.

Picker and his colleagues at the other state energy agencies and local electric utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), talked about new mitigation measures to make up for the absence of transmission pipelines and Aliso Canyon underground gas storage. One of those measures is putting a moratorium on new gas utility hookups, according to the CPUC chief.

"Having a moratorium on new connections would reduce increased demand by residential, commercial and industrial customers, avoiding digging ourselves deeper into this potential hole," Picker said. "It would be best if the County of Los Angeles [population of 10 million] came forward with a plan to do that, but if they can't or they are unwilling to do so, we're looking at what our emergency authority allows."

Nevertheless, Picker said ultimately it is SoCalGas' responsibility to "ensure safe and reliable service" and it is "especially important" that the utility avoid curtailments to any customers. "To that end, SoCalGas really has to start to plan on how we are going to meet the challenges coming up this winter."

Picker was asked during a conference call with news media last week to discuss the assessment for more detail on the possibility of placing a ban on new gas connections, and he repeated his thought that the county should come forward with a strategy because it tracks where new planned residential development will be coming online this winter.

"It would be best if [Los Angeles] county would take the lead; they can tell us where the new developments are, and where people have not moved in yet," Picker said, citing "eight or nine planned communities" set to be developed near the existing Porter Ranch community that is located a mile south of Aliso Canyon. "Which of those communities that are hooking up to gas can be postponed? And which of those can use alternatives such as small-scale geothermal? That is the type of information that the county is going to have."

Ultimately, in plans the CPUC is working on with other state agencies, the state eventually may be taking more comprehensive measures against the future use of natural gas, Picker said.

The latest "Aliso Canyon Winter Risk Assessment Technical Report” was compiled by state energy agencies and LADWP indicating that the Southern California region faces greater uncertainty than a year ago, with gas curtailments to large industrial users more likely. Officials concluded the biggest new hurdle for the gas-dependent region is the absence of the SoCalGas transmission pipelines.

Officials predicted that supplies from Aliso Canyon, the state's largest gas storage facility, will be needed this winter.

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