Around 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, the cellphones of millions of Californians lit up with a new type of emergency alert: “Conserve power now to protect public health and safety.”
This text message warning proved critical in helping avoid power outages during the grueling heat wave that taxed the state’s power grid for more than a week, California officials say.
“Within moments, we saw a significant reduction in load, to the tune of about 2,000 megawatts over the next 20 to 30 minutes,” said Elliot Mainzer, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state power grid. “This significant response from California consumers to the Wireless Emergency Alert has allowed us to restore our operating reserves and brought us back to the brink of a broader network disruption.”
Just 30 minutes before Wireless Emergency Alert was triggered — a system historically used for Amber Alerts or impending location-specific threats, such as wildfires — Cal ISO had utility providers ready premises to set up continued blackouts if conditions did not improve. The state just hit record high power demand, and Mainzer said power usage isn’t going down until this alert is issued.
“Our absolute intention is not to have to do this again tonight,” Mainzer said. “It’s an absolute tool of last resort.”
He called Tuesday an “extraordinarily difficult day” for the power grid, almost pushed to the brink as record high temperatures scorched much of the state. Officials forecast peak demand at 51,146 megawatts, but on Tuesday night California set an all-time high of 52,061 megawatts.
Tuesday’s record surpassed the previous all-time high of 50,270 megawatts set in July 2006.
According to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which issued the text alert, residents of certain counties have been targeted due to high temperatures, population density and concentration of air conditioner use. . Alerts were sent to residents of Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Madera, Marin, Merced, Orange, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Shasta , Sonoma, Solano, Stanislaus, Tulare, Ventura, and Yolo counties.
There are about 27 million people living in the targeted counties, said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services. Alerts were sent in English and Spanish.
San Francisco, Marin and Humboldt counties did not receive alerts because, despite having large populations, most people do not use air conditioning.
“It’s quite unique [for the emergency alert system] be used that way, especially for energy,” Ferguson said.