For two days in August, as an intense heat wave smothered Western states and drove electricity use to record levels, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages the state’s high-voltage electricity transmission grid, imposed rolling electricity outages that cut power to 813,000 customers. The reason, unlike more recent utility-imposed shut-offs in California, was not related to wildfires, but to inadequate supplies of power.

Could the Northwest be next?

The answer is yes, but we are working to make sure it doesn’t happen.

According to a preliminary analysis by CAISO, the rolling blackouts on Aug. 14 and 15, which lasted from about 8 minutes to more than two hours depending on location, were caused by high demand during a heat wave, inadequate supplies of backup power in California for reduced amounts of wind and solar generation, and power-marketing decisions just days before the blackouts that left the state with what the report called “exacerbated supply challenges.”

The last point is critical. When California ran low on power and had to impose blackouts, the Northwest was able to export large amounts of hydropower to help California through its crisis because we had a good water year and extra hydropower. But the Northwest will not have surplus power every year. In short, California got lucky in 2020.

Here in the Northwest, we faced a somewhat similar crisis during the winter of 2000-2001 when cold weather caused high demand for electricity, supplies were inadequate (our main supply, hydropower, was low because of a drought), and wholesale power prices rose to levels never seen before thanks largely to the reduced hydropower supply and power market manipulation by Enron. The lights stayed on, but the economic damage was huge, including shutting off power to the aluminum industry to keep the lights on for the rest of us, which temporarily put 5,000 people out of work.

What did California learn from the August blackouts? In the analysis, the three state agencies that oversee electricity in the state recommend that planning targets be updated to ensure that adequate generation and power-storage projects are online, and also that wholesale power market practices be improved so the actual balance of supply and demand is clear during stressed operating conditions.

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What the Northwest learned from the 2000-2001 crisis resonates in the aftermath of the California blackouts. Back then, we saw the future, and we acted.

The 2000-2001 experience spurred the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to annually assess power supply adequacy five years into the future and thus provide an early warning of possible problems. While there’s no common industry standard for power supply adequacy, the typical approach elsewhere in the nation is to plan to have enough power so that the chance of a shortage occurs, on average, only once in 10 years (10% probability).

The Northwest’s standard is more stringent because hydropower is the dominant source of electricity, and low-water years can reduce the hydropower supply significantly. If the likelihood of having a shortage (one that requires taking emergency actions) is more than 1 in 20 years (5% probability), the council deems the power supply to be inadequate, and that designation should spur development of new supplies. No utility plans for 100% adequacy. That would be too expensive, as it would require building a great many power plants that would operate very infrequently.

Unlike California, the Northwest does not have an independent power system operator to ensure short-term power supply adequacy. But the Northwest does have the Power and Conservation Council. While utilities and utility regulators are responsible for preventing adequacy issues, the council’s Northwest Power Plan forecasts demand for power 20 years into the future. The power plan identifies existing and new generation, and energy efficiency, to meet the forecast demand, consistent with the council’s adequacy standard.

In this planning, the council is required by law to use the existing power system as a base, then recommend additions to it to meet anticipated demand. To complete this supply model, facilities expected to retire or come on line during the 20 years of the plan are subtracted from or added to the supply. The council then assesses future risks — the risk of low water years that affect hydropower generation, the risk of ups and downs in the wholesale power market, the risk that a generating plant or plants might go away, either suddenly or over time.

The council includes all existing generating and efficiency resources in its planning, including, for example, the controversial four Lower Snake River Dams. Whether they should be removed to benefit salmon and steelhead is not a question for the council to resolve. If a political or legal decision is made to remove them, we will account for that in our planning and replace their output according to the law to assure an adequate and reliable power supply for the Northwest.

Currently, the council is working on the next iteration of the power plan, which we intend to finish late next year. The power plan helps ensure a reliable, affordable, low-carbon future power supply, and a low probability of having to take emergency actions.

Planning for a 20-year secure power supply has never been more challenging. Climate change is affecting electricity use and generation, steadily shifting the Northwest to a summer-peaking region like California. With coal-fired power plants retiring and more wind and solar power coming online, meeting peak demand during hot and cold weather will continue to be a challenge. But here in the Northwest, we have our early-warning system to tell us in advance if problems are likely to develop.