Power Crunch Keeps California on Edge as Brutal Summer Looms

California is bracing for another afternoon of blistering weather and potential blackouts as officials urge people to conserve power and forecasters warn of a brutal summer ahead.

Grid officials kept the lights on Thursday and said they don’t expect rolling outages on Friday, either. Still, they’re urging consumers to curb power use, especially in the early evening when solar production fades and temperatures are expected to be above 105 Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) degrees in Sacramento and elsewhere.

The most populous U.S. state is already flirting with a repeat of historic rotating outages that briefly darkened parts of the region in August. The threat comes even before the solstice marks the official start of summer on Sunday, signaling that the power crunch may intensify in coming months. It also underscores the magnitude of challenges for officials struggling to address growing heat, drought and wildfire threats linked to climate change.

“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.”

The entire state of California will most likely experience above-normal temperatures through July, August and September, according to Scott Handel, a forecaster at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

The pressure on energy resources is likely to continue into this weekend, with the weather service warning of “dangerously hot conditions” through Saturday evening.

Temperatures have topped 100 degrees 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 and the Southwest will swelter until cooling across the region by Monday. Central Valley temperatures are forecast to retreat to the 90s.

Much of California has been mired in extreme drought, and parched vegetation is poised to burn after a dry winter. The lack of seasonal rains also has reduced hydropower generation, adding to supply woes just as neighboring states like Arizona and Nevada also face rising power demand.

“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.”

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, while grid officials were also able to import more power from neighboring utilities. Although the heat has engulfed most of the Southwest, it hasn’t stretched north to the Pacific Northwest, making import easier for California.

State officials have worked in recent months to avoid a replay of August’s outages, the first in two decades. They delayed planned retirements of old, gas-fired power plants and tweaked electricity market rules to encourage imports. Power companies also are installing big batteries to store solar power during the day for evening use.

The state estimates that will boost capacity by about 2,000 megawatts -- roughly the output of two nuclear reactors -- by August, and some are already running. By contrast, officials forecast demand Friday will peak at more than 41,000 megawatts. What’s more, demand load typically peaks hours after solar output reaches its maximum.

Power Crunch Keeps California on Edge as Brutal Summer Looms

Meanwhile, traders betting this week on electricity shortages across the western U.S. drove a key spread between prices in Arizona and those in the Los Angeles area to the widest ever.

Power regularly travels between western states 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.

“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.”

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

He’s trying to avoid another devastating fire season and the heat-triggered blackouts that left many Californians in the dark while stuck home amid lockdowns. The current heat comes as the state reopens this week, lifting most pandemic restrictions.

“My mind is immediately focused on issues of energy security, immediately focused on issues of wildfire season,” Newsom told reporters this week.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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