California’s power grid is buckling under extreme heatwave

In the past 72 hours, California has declared two grid emergencies and started first rolling blackouts since 2001.

California heat wave
California has ordered rolling power outages for the first time since 2001 as a statewide heatwave strained its electrical system [File: Richard Vogel/Associated Press]

One of the most extreme heat waves in generations is smothering California this week and pushing the region’s power grid to the brink of collapse.

In the past 72 hours, the state has declared two grid emergencies and instituted the first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis to protect a system strained by people blasting air conditioners and power plants tripping offline. The region’s electricity system operator has warned of more rotating outages through Wednesday with temperatures forecast to reach as high as 112 degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celsius) in some parts of the state.

By 7:30 a.m. local time it was already 80 degrees in Sacramento. With temperatures climbing, demand for power in the state is expected to reach more than 49,700 megawatts Monday afternoon, just shy of the all-time record set in 2006.

Since Friday, millions of Californians have been abruptly plunged into darkness with little notice as utilities work to keep the state’s grid from collapsing. With Covid-19 still spreading, the powerless have faced a difficult choice between enduring the heat at home and seeking relief elsewhere in a state that’s reported more infections than any other. These blackouts are hitting less than a year after California’s utilities deliberately cut power to millions to keep their electrical lines from sparking fires during unusually strong windstorms – all extreme weather events made more frequent by climate change.

Monday and Tuesday “will be quite hot, and there will be a number of records again,” said David Roth, a senior branch forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. “It is pretty much the whole West.”

The relentless heat is starting to take a physical toll on California’s power system. Transformers – the metal cylinders sitting atop power poles – can malfunction and catch fire if they don’t cool off at night. And temperatures in some parts of Southern California are expected to remain in the low 80’s overnight. During a deadly, 10-day heatwave in 2006, the state’s utilities lost more than 1,500 of these devices, with each knocking out service to one neighborhood in the process.

The heat wave gripping the West Coast stems from a stubborn, high-pressure system that has parked itself across the Great Basin spanning Nevada and other western states. It essentially acts as a lid trapping hot air, and there aren’t any indications it’s going to budge soon.

Such phenomenons, sometimes called heat domes, are getting worse because the Earth’s climate is changing. As the planet warms, the contrast between the heat at the equator and the cold at the pole decreases. That saps the strength of the jet stream, which otherwise would be able to shove the ridges out of the way. It explains in part why extreme heat has blanketed regions around the world in recent weeks.

Last month was tied for the world’s second-hottest July on record and the hottest ever in the northern hemisphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Extreme weather has taken a profound toll on electrical grids in recent weeks. Earlier this month, millions of people lost power across the U.S. Midwest after a wall of lightning, hail and deadly winds tore a path of ruin from central Iowa to Chicago. Days earlier, Tropical Storm Isaias darkened millions of homes from the Carolinas to Connecticut.

Soaring temperatures have already shattered records across California. According to the National Weather Service, Los Angeles International Airport hit a daily record of 93 degrees, breaking a previous high of 85 set in 1994. Death Valley reached 130 degrees for the first time since 1913. If validated, the weather service said, it will go down as the hottest August temperature there ever.

California’s outages began on Friday, when a power plant malfunctioned just as the heat sent electricity demand surging to a peak. Grid operators ordered utilities to cut back and about 2 million people lost service over the course of four hours. A similar episode played out Saturday, when an estimated 352,500 homes and businesses briefly went dark.

“I’m pretty shocked by this – I think everybody is,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. “This has to be addressed with a lot of attention, and fast.”

Before Friday, California’s grid operator hadn’t imposed rolling blackouts since the energy crisis of 2001, when hundreds of thousands of customers took turns being plunged into darkness, power prices surged to record levels and the state’s largest electric utility went bankrupt. (It went bankrupt a second time last year in the face of crippling wildfire liabilities.)

Mandy Feuerbacher, an immigration attorney in Los Gatos, saw her lights go out without warning on Friday evening. Her two-year-old twins were up until 2 a.m. crying from the heat. She and her husband moved their beds into the downstairs kitchen, hoping it would be cool enough in there for them to sleep.

“The babies were so hot. They were freaking out. We were really worried about our food spoiling,” Feuerbacher said. “It was terrible.”

(Adds latest temperature, power forecast in third paragraph.)

-With assistance from Christopher Martin.

Source: Bloomberg