California’s Blackout Threat Ends, but Long Summer Lies Ahead

California has dodged the threat of blackouts -- for now.

For a second night in row, the Golden State narrowly escaped rolling outages as Californians heeded the call to conserve power during a brutal heat wave. The record-high temperatures were expected to ease by Sunday as cool ocean air is forecast to creep further inland from the coast, likely relieving strain on the electric grid with less need to crank up air conditioners.

But the two-day brush with blackouts illustrated the difficulties California may face in the months ahead. Summer’s official arrival on Sunday finds the state already parched by drought, with small brush fires erupting on a daily basis and hydropower generation low. Long-range forecasts call for above-average temperatures through September. And with few new power sources on the immediate horizon, electricity supplies will remain tight whenever heat waves strike. The kind of heat-driven blackouts that stunned Californians in August -- the state’s first rolling outages since the Enron debacle 20 years ago -- could become a persistent threat.

California’s Blackout Threat Ends, but Long Summer Lies Ahead

“We are being foretold of the ghost of summer yet to come,” said Gary Ackerman, an independent energy consultant who founded the Western Power Trading Forum. “It’s not just whether there is enough water -- there’s not -- and whether there’s enough power or whether there are wildfires. If you have a combination of all those things, you have an Armageddon on your hands.”

California’s predicament reflects both the worsening effects of climate change and the state’s own efforts to fight it.

The annual rainy season for the state has been growing shorter even as temperatures rise, creating ideal conditions for massive fires. Recent dry winters have cut production from hydropower dams, one of the state’s main sources of carbon-free energy, with hourly hydropower output on Thursday 53% lower than the average for June over the past three years, according to BloombergNEF.

The state has moved aggressively to cut carbon emissions by shifting to renewable energy, but so many gas-burning power plants have closed that electricity supplies tighten at sunset, when solar production ends. Big batteries are being plugged into the grid to soak up power during the day and ease the evening crunch. Yet many of the batteries scheduled to be online by August and September, typically the state’s hottest months, weren’t ready in time for this week’s early heat.

Grid managers expect to have 2,000 megawatts of batteries ready by August, but during this week’s tight evening conditions, batteries have only supplied 500 to 600 megawatts, according to data from the California Independent System Operator.

“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,” he said.

‘Weather Volatility’

Temperatures this week topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) from the southeastern desert to near Oregon, while sparing big coastal cities. Sacramento hit 110 degrees Thursday, a record for the date, while Death Valley hit 128 degrees, eclipsing the date’s all-time high.

California’s Blackout Threat Ends, but Long Summer Lies Ahead

Blackouts were averted Thursday mainly by conservation, with consumers asked to avoid unnecessary evening use. The California Independent System Operator renewed those requests for Friday to help alleviate the stress on the grid it oversees.

Governor Gavin Newsom also secured additional energy supplies with an emergency declaration, and grid officials were able to import more power from neighboring utilities. Although the heat has engulfed most of the Southwest, it hasn’t stretched as far as the Pacific Northwest, making imports easier for California to obtain. And unlike last August’s historic heat wave that triggered the blackouts, this week’s heat didn’t quite reach California’s heavily populated coast, keeping power demand there from soaring.

“Climate change is creating incredible weather volatility, and the grid operators struggle to accurately figure out what that really means,” said Stephen Byrd, a utilities analyst at Morgan Stanley. “Sometimes they say the culprit is clean energy. That’s not true; that is way over simplified. I think it has to do with weather volatility more than anything.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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