Arizona well prepared to avoid billion dollar energy disasters like California, Texas

Arizona electric companies told state utility regulators last week that they are well equipped to deal with climate extremes to avoid disastrous rolling blackouts and major power outages like those experienced in California and Texas this past year. 

Poor planning is one reason those two states saw major energy shortages, regional and state power grid experts told members of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) at the Energy Reliability Summit

The special meeting is one of several emergency hearings on the crises to help educate commissioners, legislators and community stakeholders about what went wrong and to be reassured that the same won’t happen on Arizona’s “watch,” said Chairwoman Lea Márquez Peterson.

Lea Márquez Peterson

“We all want assurances that what we observed won’t happen here,” Márquez Peterson said. “The public trust their elected leaders to be working day and night to make sure these public health catastrophes don’t happen on their watch.” 

Lack of planning led to tens of billions of dollars in damage

In California and Texas, lack of planning resulted in tens of billions of dollars in damages to property, life and the economy in both states. 

All states in the West are now grappling with how to prevent even more disasters. Energy demands are only going to increase along with costs, experts said at the hearing.  

Arizona and the other states and regions that share the grid in the West are at risk, they said. Coordination and cooperation must now be the focus. 

At the meeting, representatives from Arizona Public Service Company (APS), Salt River Project (SRP), Tucson Electric Power (TEP), UNS and Arizona Electric Power Cooperative detailed measures they are taking to prevent similar catastrophes. They said they are better prepared than California and Texas, pointing out that Arizona saw record heat last summer but experienced few problems in meeting demand.   

Representatives from the Western Electricity Coordinating Council  (WECC) also spoke about their analysis and recommendations for rising risks across the Western U.S. The WECC is federally authorized to assure a reliable electric system within the Western Interconnection, one of two major power grids in the nation. The grid interconnects 14 states including Arizona, two Canadian provinces and northern Baja in Mexico. 

Among the most important recommendations is to pursue better cooperation and coordination in managing the grid moving forward, Jordan White, WECC’s vice president of strategic engagement and deputy general counsel told commissioners. 

Jordan White

Here are some takeaways from the summit:

1,000-year events now happening every 10 years or less

A major factor for California and Texas were catastrophic weather-related events that rarely occurred before 2000. A 1,000-year event now might happen every 10 years or less.

These major climate events require that states connected to the grid change how they have always conducted business, White said. 

Climate extremes causing less predictability in system

Much of the need for quick action lies in the changing season patterns in the West, White said. 

Historically, states in the Western Interconnection have had different peak energy seasons, making it easy to support each other. For example, Arizona has had excess energy to share in the winter when Northwest states were freezing. But warmer temperatures and higher demands overall are “broadly impacting” the system. Climate is becoming more similar across states, White said.

Less diversity among resources affecting supplies 

A large number of “baseload predictable” energy resources are being retired, which is reducing the diversity of available resources in states like California that are moving to 100 percent renewable energy. 

“The long and short of this is that the predictability and diversity that we relied on for so many years is changing, which requires a heightened focus on how we look at how the system is managed,” White said.

Among the WECC’s top recommendations is the need for more cooperation and coordination, he said. Interdependencies need to be accounted for. 

What went wrong in California

High temperatures and widespread wildfires in California last summer caused power losses to millions of homes and forced the state’s power grid to order utilities to cut electricity on a rolling basis. 

An investigative report by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state Energy Commission and the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid listed a number of reasons for the shortages including:

-California failed to properly prepare for shortages. For example, when California expected to import energy from other states to address its accelerated demand, virtually every power plant in the West was also running at full capacity. 

-As California has increased its reliance on renewables, it failed to account for shortages in energy generation from its solar and hydroelectric resources. 

What went wrong in Texas 

In Texas, back-to-back severe winter storms last month caused the power crisis that resulted in a massive electricity generation failure. More than 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without power, resulting in shortages of water, food and heat. Some businesses were left without heat for several days. 

Two primary causes for the shortages were found to be:

-Inadequately winterized natural gas equipment, which led to extreme cold  freezing at natural gas plants. Frozen equipment at wells also limited the gas supply extracted from the ground.

-Texas has largely isolated itself from the two major power grids to avoid federal oversight and deregulate its energy sector. That complicated its ability to import energy from other states. 

Why Arizona is well prepared

Arizona is a different story, utility representatives told commissioners at the meeting. All of the utilities who spoke said they are well prepared for 2021.

Utilities also have a good diversity of resources to pull from, ranging from renewables to natural gas to carbon-free nuclear energy. Microgrids are also creating new energy sources. These small, self-contained power systems can draw energy from rooftop solar panels, nearby wind turbines and other sources.

APS said it has long invested in weatherization to protect plants and equipment from extreme heat. All of the utilities offer energy saving plans or enlist the help of residential and business customers to lower energy usage during peak summer hours.

Unlike Texas, Arizona utilities are regulated and under stricter reliability standards. Reliability and affordability of energy are written into the state Constitution. 

Moving forward, White of the WECC said, all members need to work together to better plan and manage the West’s energy as climate disasters are becoming more common. 

“We can’t ignore our neighbors,” he said. To view the meeting in its entirety, go to: Energy Reliability Summit

Victoria Harker

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