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California’s Energy Supply Will Remain Tight This Winter

Issue 10 and Volume 105.

Thanks to mild temperatures, a significant amount of new power available to the grid, and conservation efforts, California didn’t suffer from energy shortages this summer to the extent predicted. But energy analysts warn that winter could be as energy-tight as summer was, and maybe worse. Peter Moritzburke, a research director with Cambridge Energy Research, states that by no means is California out of the woods yet.

San Francisco, in the north where the most critical shortages exist, uses more power in winter than in summer. And looming scheduled fall maintenance outages for plants that worked extra hard this summer mean that prodigious portions of generating capacity will be unavailable for more than a month. According to Jim Detmers, vice president of grid operations for the state’s ISO, up to 10,000 MW could be down for repairs in October and all such repairs must be accomplished between now and the end of the year.

Not that last winter was easy, as California endured blackouts and daily emergency calls to conserve power. Electricity shortages were so bad that utilities pleaded with their customers to turn off holiday lighting in December. “We have to be vigilant next winter, but it’s looking a little brighter because our natural gas supplies will not be as scarce,” said Loretta Lynch, president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

The state must continue building more plants to narrow the gap between thin supplies and demand from the nation’s largest economy. About 1,700 new MW came on line this summer when three new plants opened. About 1,100 additional MW are expected by the end of winter. Moritzburke says a total of 5,000 MW would put the market in balance by 2003.

California must also add more natural gas to storage fields and build more pipelines to deliver the fuel to power plants that generate more than one-third of the state’s electricity. And there remains the persistent issue of transmission bottlenecks. The CPUC has ordered Pacific Gas & Electric to upgrade a portion of a key transmission corridor known as Path 15 between southern and northern California. To eliminate a bottleneck, the project would add a third power line to the transmission system. But the path won’t be completed until at least 2003 and maybe not until the following year.

Finally, the drought affecting the Northwest continues to limit the amount of hydropower that will be available for export to California.