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Pressure Builds for New CA Infrastructure, Energy Dept. in Blackouts's Aftermath

Although they lasted barely an hour and were confined to parts of Southern California, last month's blackouts from a transmission emergency on a giant public sector high-voltage transmission line were used last week to pressure state lawmakers, energy companies and regulators into action. In essence, that was the prime motivation for a press conference called last Wednesday by Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas and Electric Co. and in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's push later the same day to revive his two-year-old proposal for creating a consolidated new state energy department.

Schwarzenegger was clearly hoping the very recent transmission emergency would provide a sense of urgency in the state legislature for his re-introduced plan to reorganize the state's scattered energy functions into one cabinet-level Energy Department. The latest proposal (AB 1165) consolidates staff and functions of several departments, commissions and offices is similar to earlier proposals rejected by a nonpartisan state commission and the state legislative leadership.

Similarly, SDG&E last Wednesday positioned its CEO with a local business leader and former state energy commission official (now a consultant) to announce plans for its "Sunrise Powerlink," a 500 kV line from the Imperial Valley substation about 150 miles inland over a still-to-be-determined route westerly to the utility's load centers near the Pacific Coast. Later this year, the utility said it would file its formal case for the transmission line to state regulators, seeking to have the line in service by 2010.

"If the Sunrise Powerlink had been in service, it likely would have helped avoid last week's transmission emergency," said Edwin Guiles, SDG&E CEO, during a news media event in which a health care industry CEO urged the California Public Utilities Commission to quickly approved the proposed transmission line once a formal route is determined and an application filed. Also attending was a former CEC commissioner now a consultant who recently completed a study touting the Imperial Valley as a good location for new wind, geothermal and solar developments.

Noting that the Sunrise project is geared as a means of improving the state's power reliability, SDG&E's Guiles told news media "last week's electric transmission emergency was a sharp reminder of just how fragile California's transmission grid is."

Like the governor's broader government reorganization proposal released last May, the intent of Schwarzenegger's eleventh-hour revised proposal is "to make government more accountable to the people, make energy policy more cohesive, reduce duplication and improve communications with the legislature, stakeholders and the people," according to an announcement from the governor's press office.

"The people and businesses of California deserve a stable, affordable and reliable source of energy," said Gov. Schwarzenegger. "Last week's transmission line hiccup should be a wake-up call to us all that more generation and more transmission are badly needed and this reform will help achieve those goals.

Ironically, the transmission emergency centered on the private sector utilities and electric transmission grid was caused by a sensor failure at the Southern California terminus of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's (LADWP's) 500 kV direct current (DC) Pacific Intertie transmission line out of the Pacific Northwest. The sensor apparently mistakenly detected a problem that wasn't there, and the line automatically tripped off, resulting an immediate loss of 2,800 MW of capacity into the southern half of the state.

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) that operates the private-sector owned part of the state grid was scratching its institutional head at the end of last month, seeking a new designation for transmission emergencies that will more clearly separate them from the power alert system it has related to resources availability, according to CAISO spokesperson Gregg Fishman.

CAISO often declares transmission emergencies for short periods of times during the peak-demand summer season, but they usually do not require the rolling blackouts that the grid operator asked Southern California Edison Co. to institute as a combination of curtailment to both firm and interruptible customers last Thursday.

The emergency lasted a little more than an hour and affected 246,000 Edison customers in what the utility described as small portions of seven cities from Santa Barbara to Palm Desert, along with another 163,000 interruptible customers who pay a reduced rate with the provision that their electric service can be interrupted at any time. Some small municipal utilities and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. also were affected by the blackouts, CAISO's Fishman said.

Long before the transmission blip or its Sunrise Powerlink concept, Sempra's SDG&E has talked about the need for the transmission link in conjunction with the prospects for various renewable projects in the Imperial Valley. So SDG&E previewed its transmission announcement earlier than it had planned to admittedly take advantage of the interest stirrred by the Aug. 25 rolling blackouts.

In addition to the obvious nudge from the rolling blackouts, SDG&E said it was motivated to talk about its plans prematurely based on the favorable results the utility has received from an accelerated added 230 kV line between its Mission and Miguel substations. SDG&E pushed ahead with Wednesday's formal announcement as a means of generating early stakeholder support for the new line that would start at the Imperial Valley substation more than 100 miles inland from the SDG&E load center.

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