Southern California is facing the threat of forced blackouts this summer due to the gas leak at Aliso Canyon, according to state agencies.

A new action plan from the California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission, California Independent System Operator and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power suggests there could be as many as 14 days of blackouts this summer if gas supply and demand is thrown out of balance.

While some news stories about the potential for outages invoke the blackouts of the energy crisis more than a decade ago, they downplayed the opportunity for increased conservation and coordination that are possible due to technology advances that were not readily available more than a decade ago.

The report calls for a range of measures, including getting through the safety review more rapidly, imposing tighter gas-balancing tariffs for non-core customers, modifying how balancing is done on the gas system, more effectively syncing up CAISO day-ahead market awards and generator scheduling, improving electric and gas coordination and deferring nonessential gas maintenance. Some of those, such as improved electric and gas coordination, are already underway (FERC Order 809 calls for better coordination between the gas and electric wholesale market scheduling).

There is also a laundry list of demand response and efficiency measures for mitigation, which are arguably the cheapest and easiest to implement, given that most are simply expansions of existing programs.

But forecasting day-ahead electric demand, especially with granularity, is a tricky business, LADWP General Manager Marcie Edwards suggested to the Los Angeles Times. “Can you tell me when Mrs. Smith is going to flip on her dishwasher?” Edwards asked.

The answer is that the air conditioner matters far more than the dishwasher; and yes, to some extent, you can predict when users will turn on particular appliances. There are dozens of companies dedicated to data analytics for both commercial and residential energy use that have developed sophisticated modeling.

These companies can help predict how people will use energy given a set of circumstances. The insight can be more granular if smart meters are in place, a technology which LADWP has not yet fully deployed, unlike the three large investor-owned utilities in the state. But even without them, there are many vendors that say they can help utilities identify and curb load where and when it’s needed.

LADWP has said it will invest more in appliance rebate programs, as well as ramp up energy efficiency and demand response programs for this summer, although the utility did not provide specifics about how exactly they will be scaled up or what new programs may be launched this year. Natural gas is used for about one-quarter of LADWP’s electricity supply.

There are many types of programs to choose from, but there is some debate over which programs are the most effective for demand response.

CAISO runs the Flex Alert program, which asks people to voluntarily turn off unnecessary lights and turn down the AC when the grid is strained. The alerts are set out via text message and via traditional media platforms. Flex Alert will also be expanded to offer some messaging to gas customers urging them to conserve.

The utilities, which fund the program now run by CAISO, have argued the lack of verification for how much load is shed is one reason to put the money into other demand-side programs. Also, they argue that spending money on ad spots is not a great use of ratepayer funds when better demand response programs are available today. CAISO says Flex Alerts typically help shed about 1,000 megawatts.

Despite the lack of measurement and verification for Flex Alert, it will likely get an influx of cash this summer. The CPUC has issued a proposal for SoCalGas, which owns the leakingstoragefacility, to provide $15 million to fund Flex Alert, which would double the program’s funding.

As Flex Alert expands, utilities are seeking more customers for targeted programs. Southern California Edison, the other utility that will be most affected by potential gas shortages, has already said it will try to enroll 1 million residential and commercial customers in its basic demand-response program, which pays them to cycle AC units. SCE will target customers whose interval data shows they use AC.

Other programs that could help, such as SCE’s bring-your-own-thermostat (BYOT) program, will not be significantly expanded until 2017, according to SCE’s Aliso Canyon action plan filing. The BYOT program is the most effective of SCE’s peak time rebate programs, according to the filing, yet SCE expects only about another 10,000 customers to enroll this year.

But those numbers could be far higher, according to Seth Frader-Thompson, CEO of EnergyHub, which administers BYOT programs for various utilities and participates in the new demand response auction mechanism in California.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Frader-Thompson. While California was an early mover in BYOT programs, there is still a lot of headroom. The regulators and utilities could streamline the process further to make enrollment easier.  In California, about one in 20 eligible customers sign up for a BYOT program, in Texas it’s nearly one in two. 

"I think there's huge potential for residential and [small business] demand response to grow quickly in CA," said Frader-Thompson. "They could solve that with a few key tweaks to the enrollment process."

The demand response auction mechanism is another way that more load at the grid edge could be offered up for reliability, but it is unlikely to be deployed before 2017. In the 2016 DRAM pilot, resources are only allowed in the day-ahead market. In 2017, loads of at least 500 kilowatts can also bid in as a reliability demand response resource, or RDRR, in real time.

But SCE argued in its filing that the DRAM pilot could be working against reliability at the utility level, as it pulls customers out of utility demand response and into the wholesale markets through third-party aggregators.

“While these provisions were appropriate for the DRAM Pilot objectives,” wrote SCE, “they are not useful for addressing potential reliability risks stemming from the Aliso Canyon leak, such as bringing new DR customers (resources) into the market and providing new fast-response DR resources.”

The silver lining is that there is still 15 billion cubic feet of gas available in Aliso Canyon. It was allocated in thirds to be used for the 2015-2016 winter season, summer 2016 and next winter. The good news is the 5 billion cubic feet allocated for this past winter was not used, making it available for summer.

Part of the contingency is just crossing fingers and hoping for moderate temperatures. “If noncore customers and SoCalGas can closely match their scheduled gas with actual demand, there are no prolonged heat waves, and there are no prolonged unexpected outages of the backbone pipeline transmission system, the 10 billion cubic feet could be enough to meet demand this summer,” the plan states.

Unfortunately, above-average temperatures are expected for Southern California as El Niño weakens and could transition into La Niña.

The draft action plan released this week will be discussed at a public workshop on April 8 in Woodland Hills.