California Confronts Another Day of Heat, Possible Blackouts

California avoided blackouts Thursday evening, but grid officials warned that power supplies may be tight again on Friday as a triple-digit heat wave continues to grip the western U.S.

The Golden State asked residents to turn off unneeded lights and appliances to avoid a repeat of historic rotating outages that plagued the state last summer.

Conservation and other measures helped keep the lights on Thursday as Californians cranked up air conditioners during this year’s first major heat wave. Governor Gavin Newsom freed up additional energy supplies through an emergency declaration while grid officials said they were also able to import more power from neighboring utilities.

The early start to summer woes underscores the challenges facing officials, with most of California mired in extreme drought and parched vegetation ready to burn after a dry winter. The drought across western states is already testing power grids as hydro generation dries up, and it adds to signs climate change is bringing more extreme weather.

“Summer hit us a little earlier than expected,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Glick told reporters Thursday. “We are seeing extreme conditions happen earlier. We are seeing them happen with more ferocity than we have, clearly related to climate change.”

California Confronts Another Day of Heat, Possible Blackouts

“It’s a pretty big heatwave for this early in June,” said Cory Mueller, a weather service meteorologist in Sacramento.

The pressure on energy resources is expected to continue into this weekend, with the National Weather Service warning of “dangerously hot conditions” through Saturday evening.

Temperatures climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) from near the Oregon border to the southeastern desert, though big coastal cities were spared. Sacramento hit 110 degrees Thursday, a record for the date, while Death Valley National Park hit 128 degrees, eclipsing an all-time high for the date.

Adding to power demand challenges, the California grid unexpectedly lost two natural-gas generators Thursday, prompting calls for conservation Friday, Mark Rothleder, senior vice president at the California Independent System Operator, which runs most of the state’s grid, said during a media call.

PG&E Corp., California’s biggest utility, said a blackout Thursday night would have affected 121,000 customers for an hour or two. As families braced for outages, the state managed to pull all of its levers to avoid the rolling shutdowns that struck in August.

The potential supply shortfalls Friday look “rather modest,” Elliot Mainzer, head of the California ISO, said earlier this week.

State officials have worked in recent months to prevent a repeat of August’s rolling outages, the first in two decades. In addition to heat waves, the state has also cut power to customers to prevent more deadly blazes from strong winds knocking down power lines.

Officials have delayed planned retirements of old, gas-fired power plants and tweaked electricity market rules to encourage imports when demand soars. Power companies also started installing large batteries to store solar power during the day and feed it back onto the grid in the evening.

Nonetheless, traders betting on electricity shortages across the western U.S. have driven a key spread between prices in Arizona and those in the Los Angeles area to the widest ever. Electricity regularly travels between Southern California, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, depending on regional needs. But the record spread highlights how climate change has brought about such extreme weather for all three regions that there isn’t always enough power to go around.

California officials have been bracing for a difficult season. Winter brought few storms, the second year in a row that the rainy season fizzled. And the ensuing drought couldn’t come at a worse time for Newsom, who faces a likely recall election this fall.

He’s trying to avoid a repeat of last year’s devastating fire season and the heat-triggered blackouts that briefly plunged more than a million Californians into the dark as they were stuck at home amid the coronavirus pandemic. The heat wave struck as the state reopened this week, lifting most of the restrictions since the start of the outbreak.

“My mind is immediately focused on issues of energy security, immediately focused on issues of wildfire season,” Newsom said Wednesday at a press conference.

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