Aliso Canyon Puts the Hit on DWP Customers This Winter

EASTSIDER-Everyone knows about the plight of the folks living around Porter Ranch, and how well SoCalGas has treated them. Now it appears that all DWP customers will be receiving a “gift” from the Gas company that we really, really are not going to like! 


It started with a major rupture in October of one of the main lines from Aliso Canyon that provides gas to the DWP, among other customers. Another line was also damaged, with a bottom line that there will be less gas available to heat our homes this winter. The language used by the Gas Co to describe all this is, “noncore winter curtailments likely.” 

LA City’s Clean Energy Goals and Natural Gas 

To put this information in context, the reason our natural gas supply is so important has a lot to do with the Mayor’s decision to require DWP to get rid of its Coal and Nuclear energy interests, tout suite. We do, however, still own a piece of the Palo Verde Nuclear power plant in Arizona. 

Anyhow, Hiz Honor’s Sustainability Plan requires that LA have 50% renewable energy by 2035, and it is indeed a major landmark achievement he touts at will. Maybe it’s also the reason that his first Chief Sustainability Chief, Matt Peterson, left in June. 

Remember, lofty goals notwithstanding, for us to get power to our homes, we absolutely must have a source of energy that is available 24/7, no matter what the weather is. Neither solar nor wind meets these criteria since it’s pretty obvious that solar only works with sunlight and wind power only when there’s wind. And batteries don’t store energy for very long. 

So as a result of getting rid of all those nasty diesel, coal and nuclear energy resources, we are now very dependent on natural gas as the main 24/7 energy supply that we rely on to fire up our power generating plants and keep them running no matter what. For better or ill, that means an increased reliance on the Aliso Canyon storage facility. 

As SoCalGas itself describes the critical nature of the facility, 

Aliso Canyon serves more than 11 million customers and provides fuel to 17 natural gas-fired power plants. It is a critical part of the region’s energy infrastructure – more than 90 percent of Southern Californians depend on gas for heat and hot water, and approximately 60 percent of all the electricity generated in California is made by natural gas-fired power plants. 

DWP Interests and the Bottom Line 

These numbers obviously include the DWP and its customers. On the positive side, the DWP’s energy generation works well with SoCalGas, since we have lots of solar and wind power generated during the summertime, and much less during the winter. SoCalGas is the opposite, with their peak output being in the summer and lower requirements in the winter. That’s good for both utilities. Usually. 

However, when something bad happens, particularly in the winter, it puts DWP customers at risk if there is a serious shortage of gas available.  

The other factor that I discovered during a Neighborhood Council DWP Committee update last week, is that electricity moves at the speed of light, which is very cool as our solar and wind resources produce virtually instant on electricity. Gas, on the other hand, moves along through the pipes at about 20-30 miles per hour! Not good for contingency planning, especially if the backup gas supply has to come a long distance. 

This is the context for our analyzing the seemingly innocent statement that SoCalGas anticipates “noncore winter curtailments likely.” Contingencies and backup. 

It turns out that DWP customers are “noncore” customers as far as SoCalGas is concerned. If bad things happen and winter curtailments occur, not only the DWP could be impacted. Other noncore customers include refineries, large hospitals, and manufacturing. As DWP spokesman Donald Sievertson said during his presentation, he “worries a lot about this winter.” For those who are interested, here are the slides from his presentation. 

Don’t misunderstand. There are some mitigation efforts underway, which include increasing supplies from the Kern River, and even from as far away as Blythe or Arizona. However, there’s the fact that even if gas is available from these places, it’s going to move to us at 20-30 miles per hour. This is not instant response. 

There are some other mitigation efforts, like delaying DWP’s own Transmission Upgrade work until February, and bringing in LNG (liquid natural gas), but again, these are not instant cures. When asked point blank to describe the risk we face, it was described as a “moderate risk.” From an expert, moderate risk is a big deal. 

Before anyone panics, there are a couple of factors to consider. The first is whether or not we have a really cold winter. Obviously, you and I have no control over the weather, and so far, it looks like a relatively mild winter this year. So far. 

The second factor, that you and I have control over, is conservation. This is clearly the key, and Angelenos already demonstrated during the drought (remember that) we can step up to a challenge.  There we saved on the order of a 30% reduction in use. If we can apply that same ability to using less gas for heating this winter, we can significantly decrease the likelihood of curtailments. So, reprogram that thermostat or turn it down! 

The Takeaway 

I will admit to not being a fan of the SoCalGas Company even before the mess at Aliso Canyon. They are a huge regulated monopoly, with enough megabucks lobbyists to own the California Legislature; they are large and monied enough to exert undue influence with the Public Utilities Commission. 

And of course, looming in the back of all our minds, is the debacle at Aliso Canyon with its monster gas leak, highlighted with the usual corporate denials and excuses and hardball litigation; and all the while, residents got sick. Not to mention what has happened to the property values of the folks who paid a pretty penny to buy into a seemingly upscale development. 

For me, the DWP presentation highlighted an unpleasant reality that seems to have been missing from all the media and political hype about the Aliso Canyon storage facility. Its huge, it stores a lot of gas, and there is simply no practical way to even dream about shutting it down in the near term. Too many Southern Californians are dependent on the flow of gas, year-round, as our main 24/7 reliable energy supply. 

I certainly hope that the experts are working on alternatives to Aliso Canyon, but in the short-term there aren’t any. Huge capital projects undertaken by the likes of SoCalGas, the Metropolitan Water District, and the DWP take years and years to design and build. Remember the Delta Tunnels? The estimate for them is about 15 years. 

In this context, right now, climate change is a double whammy for us desert creatures. First, it is really getting hotter and that requires more cooling for longer periods of time. Second, thanks to the extreme variations in our weather patterns due to climate change, there’s always the very real chance we’ll have a short but very cold weather system in the winter. 

That’s what keeps Donald Sievertson awake nights as winter approaches. So, let’s help Don and help ourselves, and see if we can conserve energy this winter. We did it with water, and I know we can do it with heating. It has been pointed out to me that if about a million consumers run their overnight heating at just one less degree, and/or set their timers 10 minutes later to start, we would be well on our way to helping ourselves avoid the dread “noncore winter curtailments likely.” 

And remember to be innovative: Personally, I like comforters and they’re seriously on sale this time of year. 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.