Environment & Science

Summer energy forecast for LA: Cautiously optimistic

File: Real-time pressure monitoring transmitters are part of a series of new safety enhancements at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch. The transmitters are displayed during a media event on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
File: Real-time pressure monitoring transmitters are part of a series of new safety enhancements at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch. The transmitters are displayed during a media event on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Southern California should have enough natural gas for power plants to avoid blackouts this summer if Southern California Gas Company moves quickly to fill three of its four gas storage fields, state energy officials said Monday.

The energy outlook for summer 2017 is much improved over predictions from the same group of agencies one year ago.  Officials had warned that the shutdown of Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility could cause many as 14 days of power outages due to the lack of gas storage.

The state Public Utilities Commission recently directed SoCal Gas to refill underground reservoirs near Valencia, Playa del Rey and Goleta. Meanwhile, the company is  keeping a low level of gas in reserve at its massive underground gas reservoir at Aliso Canyon in the north end of the San Fernando Valley. The state has a moratorium on injections and withdrawals of gas at Aliso while it undergoes safety reviews. That's following a four-moth natural gas leak at the facility that prompted thousands of families to temporarily  relocate.

Officials from the state Public Utilities Commission, the state Energy Commission and the California Independent System Operator which oversees power distribution in most of the state, along with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reviewed the region’s energy reliability at a public meeting in Diamond Bar Monday.

SoCal Gas Vice President Rodger Schwecke told the officials the company has already filled the Playa del Rey gas field and is on track to have the gas fields near Valencia and Goleta filled within the next month, in time for summer’s hottest days.

But he challenged the assumption that the three fields could adequately suport the region's energy needs, given the company's aging equipment and continuing safety overhauls of wells.

"They assumed perfection. Everything performed 100 percent of the time," Schwecke said. "That’s not a realistic assumption."

However, Catherine Elder of Aspen Environmental, which has consulted for the state agencies on the issue of energy reliability, said they had assumed the three fields would be serving up less than their top capacity.

A ruptured gas well at Aliso spewed more than 100,000 metric tons of natural gas into the atmosphere in late 2015. By the time it was plugged in February 2016, it had become the nation’s largest-ever uncontrolled leak of natural gas and the state ordered the gas field shut down until it was deemed safe to reopen.  The resulting lack of gas storage during the Aliso injection ban has contributed to warnings that the region’s power producers could run short of fuel during peak usage days, like during a heat wave.

The continued ban on refilling Aliso Canyon gas storage field has implications for 17 gas fired power plants in the Los Angeles area that generate about 9,800 megawatts. Some are plants are used as auxiliary power generators when other sources like wind and solar are insufficient.

The three fields had fallen below their usual levels because SoCal Gas had relied on the fields in past months to cover gas requests that would normally have been covered by the Aliso Canyon field. One year earlier, during winter 2015-16, the company had drawn heavily from the Aliso Canyon gas field to lower the pressure while the gas leak was active and after it was plugged.

The positive new prediction, that the L.A. Basin can expect to have enough gas over summer is based on several major changes in the way the region consumes natural gas in response to the virtual closure of the Aliso gas field.

It assumes that Southern California Gas Co. will keep a low level of gas in its Aliso Canyon storage reservoir. It can hold 86 billion cubic feet of gas and is being held at 14.8 billion cubic feet.

The prediction also assumes SoCal Gas will refill three smaller underground gas storage reservoirs in Valencia, Playa del Rey and Goleta which had fallen to low levels over the winter and early spring.

The prediction also assumes the continuation of rules imposed last year that force large gas customers to more accurately order the amounts they expect to use, which reduces the requirement to store gas. Before the blowout took Aliso offline, gas customers could be fairly relaxed in the amounts of gas they ordered versus how much they actually used because they could park the excess at Aliso, or draw out extra if they ran short. The rules do not change the amount of gas that is used, rather they reduce the need for storage.

Prolonged periods of very hot weather or some interruption of electricity imports on long-distance power lines during brush fires or other mishaps could also heighten the risk of outages, according to a report from the California Energy Commission.

The state has more hydroelectric generating capacity this year due to the heavy winter rains, and it can displace some of the gas usage, but it doesn’t produce enough power to completely replace gas-fueled power plants.

Meanwhile, conservation campaigns focusing on both electricity and gas and new power production and transmission capacity coming online in the near future should reduce the stress on the power grid, according to a report of the PUC.