California Faces Blackout Risk….Again

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Yet another heat wave is scorching California. Temperatures soared into the triple digits, with officials urging residents to conserve energy as the power grid threatened to go dark. 

Miraculously, the state managed to avert a crisis after a well-timed text message campaign. At 5:30 PM, California’s grid operator ordered its highest level of emergency, warning that blackouts were imminent. Eighteen minutes later, the state’s Office of Emergency Services sent a text alert to people in targeted counties asking them to conserve power if they could. Just 5 minutes later, energy use plunged by 1.2 gigawatts, enough to avoid rolling blackouts. However, even without planned blackouts, thousands of residents still lost power

“Thank you to everyone who saved power — coming together to keep the lights on for each other is the California way,” Governor Gavin Newsom’s office said in a tweet. “But, we aren’t out of the woods yet. We will see continued extreme temps this week, and if we rallied today, we can do it again.”

While seeing people work together to prevent mass outages is admirable, it’s appalling that the situation even got that far. After all, this isn’t the first time the Golden State has faced blackouts. It likely won’t be the last either. Adding insult to injury is that Californians pay some of the nation’s highest rates for electricity. It seems more than a little unfair to pay such high prices for an electric system that lacks basic reliability.  

Why does the state’s power grid struggle so much? Simply put, California has a supply and demand issue. Lawmakers have mothballed several natural gas and nuclear plants while aggressively investing in solar energy. That means the state often has limited power supplies in the evening after the sun goes down. Add to that drought conditions that have drained hydropower supplies and soaring air conditioner use in the face of 100-degree temperatures and you have a perfect storm. 

Fortunately, state lawmakers are finally taking action to prevent further outages. Last week, as the threat loomed, they finally approved legislation to keep California’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, online. The plant is the single largest source of electricity in the state and has been scheduled to close by 2025. Extending its life will help keep the lights on while advancing the state’s goal of 100% emission-free power by 2045. 

Keeping Diablo Canyon running is a step in the right direction, but it won’t be enough long-term. The Golden State’s power demand will continue to grow, especially as the state plans to end sales of gas-powered vehicles in a little more than a decade. If Californians try to plug in their electric vehicle during the evenings when the power grid is already struggling, the system could overload. The current grid simply won’t do. Ultimately, new energy storage and baseload power investments will be needed to keep the lights on during hot summer nights. 

California’s heat wave isn’t over yet. In fact, Sacramento is still under the threat of rolling blackouts. While we’re glad to see residents come together to save energy, these actions are no replacement for sound energy policy. Hopefully, policymakers are finally seeing their mistakes and will take further action before the situation gets any worse.