LOS ANGELES • First, it was the prospect of wildfires that took down large swathes of California’s power grid. Now, it is the worst heatwave in 70 years.
Climate change is contributing to increasingly extreme weather in California. Less than a year ago, millions of people were plunged into darkness in an effort to keep power lines from sparking catastrophic wildfires.
This time, dangerously high temperatures are taxing the system, bringing about the state’s first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis.
What is more, they are hitting just as the pandemic has trapped people indoors in a state that has recorded more Covid-19 infections than any other in the United States, leaving the powerless with a difficult choice between enduring the heat indoors and seeking relief elsewhere. It is the latest collision of wild weather and the pandemic simultaneously wreaking havoc upon the world.
Two weeks ago, Tropical Storm Isaias left millions across the eastern US without power for days, forcing remote workers into coffee shops and crowded parking spaces to access the Internet.
For Californians, last Saturday was the second night in a row that grid operator California Independent System Operator made the rare call to shut off power. An estimated 352,500 customers went dark – or roughly one million people, based on the average size of a household.
A day earlier, about two million people lost service over the course of four hours.
“I’m pretty shocked by this – I think everybody is,” said Dr Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Programme at Stanford University. “This has to be addressed with a lot of attention, and fast.”
Extreme weather fuelled in part by climate change has taken a profound toll on electrical grids in recent weeks. Just days ago, millions of people lost power across the US Midwest after a wall of lightning, hail and deadly winds tore a path of ruin from central Iowa to Chicago.
Before that, Tropical Storm Isaias had darkened homes from the Carolinas to Connecticut.
For California, the problem is heat. An unrelenting high-pressure system is pushing temperatures upwards, leaving the region facing what is expected to be its hottest two weeks in 70 years.
That is driving up power demand to extreme levels, making it harder for generating plants to keep pace.
Before last Friday, California had not 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.
The rotating blackouts last Saturday, particularly, took Californians by surprise. Less than an hour before ordering outages, the grid manager had said that blackouts would not be necessary.
The abrupt and unannounced nature of the rotating outages made the situation especially disruptive for those affected.
Regions around the world have been grappling with extreme heat, including parts of Europe and the eastern US, where temperatures last month were expected to set records for New York and Boston.
Last month 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. But few authorities, if any, resorted to rotating outages.
The National Weather Service has issued excessive-heat warnings across California until the end of Wednesday and is forecasting temperatures as high as 45 deg C in some parts.
“It will be a tad cooler on Sunday,” the agency said on Saturday, but the heat was set to get worse from today to Wednesday.