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Boiling Point: Climate change is wreaking havoc on the power grid in ways you never knew

Reflective solar panels in the desert with mountains in the background

If you’re in the habit of reading the president’s tweets, you may have noticed a theme the last few weeks: California is a fiery wasteland. He said as much Tuesday, writing that the Golden State is “going to hell.”

What exactly is wrong with the nation’s most populous state? Why, rolling blackouts, forest fires and water rationing:

Trump made the same points in another tweet last week, promising “no more blackouts” or “ridiculous forrest fires” (his typo, not mine) if he’s reelected and clarifying that water rationing is “coming soon.”

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I’ll let Times columnist Michael Hiltzik handle the water rationing stuff. He explains that California is not actually routing water to the Pacific — we’ve got these things called rivers that naturally carry water to the sea — and that Trump’s comments ignore the needs of ecosystems. And with regards to forest management, California and the federal government both have work to do.

As for blackouts? Well, if Trump wants to keep the lights on, he might consider doing something about climate change.

I wrote last week about a report from state officials concluding that the two evenings of brief rotating outages California experienced in August were caused in part by a climate-fueled heat wave, along with poor planning and faulty market design.

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There’s been a lot of debate about the extent to which climate change is actually to blame. Officials pointed out that four of California’s five hottest August days in the last 35 years came this past August; others have noted that the state experienced hotter days and higher overall peak electricity demand during a July 2006 heat storm that did not lead to rolling blackouts.

Here’s what’s not in dispute: As the planet gets hotter, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels, the number of blackouts caused by extreme weather is on the rise, in California and across the country.

The nonprofit research organization Climate Central analyzed federal data and released a report last month finding that hurricanes, wildfires, heat storms and other extreme weather events caused 67% more power outages in the United States during the decade ending in 2019 than they did during the previous decade. Here’s a chart showing the trend:

Chart showing weather-related power outages rising over time in the United States.
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There are peaks and valleys, but weather-related power outages are on the rise over the last 20 years. Power outages not related to the weather have stayed steady.

Here’s another chart showing the trend in the Southwest. Weather-related blackouts more than doubled in the last decade:

Chart showing weather-related power outages rising over time in the Southwest.

California experienced 47 weather-related power outages during the last decade, compared to 21 the previous decade. We were one of 34 states (plus the District of Columbia) to see an increase in major blackouts caused by the weather.

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Climate change isn’t the only reason blackouts are on the rise. Roshi Nateghi, an industrial engineering professor at Purdue University, told me rapid urbanization — more people moving to cities — has put greater strains on aging infrastructure. And the data used by Climate Central may overstate the increase in weather-driven outages, since reporting requirements for utilities have gotten more stringent over time.

But there’s no question climate change is playing a role, and the effects will only get worse, Nateghi said.

“A big part of it is that our grid is vulnerable to severe weather and climate events,” she said. “And we have been seeing an increase in intensity and frequency of extreme events.”

Why is extreme weather such a problem for the electric grid? Powerful winds can knock down utility poles. Intense rains can flood substations. Ice can accumulate on wires during winter storms. Wildfires can knock out power lines — or utility companies can be forced to shut down lines to avoid igniting fires. High temperatures can cause fossil-fueled power plants to produce less electricity, which actually happened with California’s natural gas fleet in August.

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Some grid infrastructure also doesn’t fare well in extreme temperatures, as Los Angeles recently learned.

The city operates its own electric system and wasn’t short on power like much of the rest of the state. But heat-related equipment failures contributed to nearly 28,000 homes and businesses losing power Aug. 19. The effects were worse during the Labor Day weekend heat wave, with more than 67,000 utility customers losing electricity Sept. 6.

“What happened during both of these heat storms was it didn’t cool down at night,” Nancy Sutley, chief sustainability officer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, told me. “When it cools down at night — even when it’s really hot during the day — the equipment has a chance to cool down, and it will be OK. But the nighttime temperatures — when it was 111 downtown, it wasn’t 70 at night. It was 80 or 90 at night.”

Solving these problems isn’t going to get easier. Last month was the hottest September on record globally, federal government scientists say. The United Nations reported this week that the world suffered about 75% more extreme weather disasters during the last 20 years than during the previous 20 years, with economic losses rising from $1.63 trillion to $2.97 trillion.

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The U.S. has already been hit by a record-tying 16 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters this year, from fires in the West to hurricanes in the Southeast to hail in the Midwest, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Map of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in 2020 includes fires, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes and storms

There are steps we can take to protect the power grid, Nateghi told me. Utilities can bury power lines, a undertaking with high upfront costs that nonetheless can provide enormous value. Utilities can also reduce strain on the grid by investing in programs that reduce energy demand, and by building microgrids that keep communities powered using local energy sources such as solar panels and batteries.

“It’s bleak if we don’t do anything. But there’s certainly a lot of options available,” Nateghi said.

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It’s definitely not good that California didn’t have enough power to keep the lights on during those two evenings in August. Utility companies and regulators will have to develop solutions to make sure it doesn’t keep happening, especially as the state continues shutting down gas plants and adding wind and solar farms in pursuit of 100% clean electricity by 2045.

But it’s important to understand that climate change — the main reason California is phasing out fossil fuels — also poses a significant threat to the reliability of our power supplies. At least so far, it’s a much bigger problem than shortages.

Here’s what else is happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

Five years ago, Exide Technologies admitted to environmental crimes and agreed to clean up its pollution in exchange for avoiding prosecution. Now Exide has filed for bankruptcy and plans to stop paying for the cleanup of up brain-damaging lead in Southeast L.A., my colleague Tony Barboza reports. Federal officials have agreed not to oppose Exide’s plan; residents of the working-class Latino neighborhoods around the company’s lead-acid battery plant are urging them to reconsider, Tony reports.

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Amy Coney Barrett, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, was asked about climate change during Senate confirmation hearings. She responded that she’s “not a scientist” and has no “firm views” on the topic. The Supreme Court could play a big role in determining whether the federal government is able to mount a serious response to the climate crisis; as Marianne Lavelle wrote recently for InsideClimate News, activists are worried the court’s landmark 2007 climate ruling could be in danger.

A shallow river flows over rocks in a wooded area
Biologists predict that when winter rains come, the San Gabriel River will be filled with soot and debris left by the Bobcat fire.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

When the winter rains come, the San Gabriel River will likely be buried in a slurry of rocks and sediment after the land was scoured by the Bobcat fire. Biologists are scrambling to protect at-risk species such as the Santa Ana sucker fish and Southern California mountain yellow-legged frog, the Times’ Louis Sahagun reports. Protecting these creatures will only get harder in a warming world, Louis writes, as California experiences more intense “whiplash shifts” between extremely dry and wet periods.

POLITICAL CLIMATE

Did renewable energy cause California’s rolling blackouts? State officials say the answer is no. But this notion was the implicit premise of President Trump’s recent tweets, and also fodder for debate at this week’s meeting of the state Assembly’s energy committee. Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said that California has categorized electricity produced by fossil fuels as “immoral electrons” and that “the moral electrons have been letting us down,” as Rob Nikolewski reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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How was Gov. Gavin Newsom first inspired to protect nature? Turns out he had a pet river otter named Potter as a kid, and no, I’m not making this up. Following Newsom’s executive order calling for California to protect 30% of its lands and coastal waters by 2030, Times columnist George Skelton wrote about how Potter the river otter informed the future governor’s love of native plants and his concern for wetlands and insects. Newsom’s father also founded the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation.

Environmentalists and the hydropower industry are finding common ground. After decades of fighting over the impacts of dams — which have devastated river ecosystems even as they generate zero-carbon electricity — several major environmental groups and the National Hydropower Assn. announced an unusual agreement to work together on tearing down older dams while upgrading some dams to produce more energy, as Brad Plumer reports for the New York Times. The agreement includes language on potentially developing new pumped hydropower energy storage, a technology I wrote about this year.

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CALIFORNIA BURNING

Yes, California is still burning — and more fires may be on the horizon. My colleague Paul Duginski reports that the state “looks to be stuck in a nearly endless loop of hot, dry weather,” following an April-September period that was already historically hot and/or historically dry across much of the West. Pacific Gas & Electric said preemptive power shut-offs for 53,000 people would begin Wednesday evening as Diablo winds and low humidity brought red flag fire warnings across much of Northern California.

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Intentional power shut-offs haven’t eliminated the risk of power lines sparking wildfires. PG&E says investigators are examining whether its infrastructure ignited the Zogg fire, which killed four people; Southern California Edison is facing similar scrutiny over the Bobcat fire, as The Times’ Joseph Serna reports. San Diego Gas & Electric, meanwhile, wants to clear certain trees within 25 feet of power lines, rather than the state-recommended 12 feet, to reduce fire risk. But a consumer watchdog agency is questioning whether that’s an effective use of ratepayer funds, as Rob Nikolewski reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

California is investigating allegations that private crews set illegal backfires during the destructive Glass fire, which swept through wine country. Here’s the story from The Times’ Hayley Smith, who writes that for-profit firefighters “have become something of a cottage industry in California in recent years.” In better news, Joseph Serna reports that Sonoma County has done a better job of organizing evacuations and alerting residents to blazes in recent weeks than it did during a 2017 firestorm.

AROUND THE WEST

There’s a growing gap between the “paper water” allocated to farmers and cities and the “actual water” available for use from the West’s rivers. The Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg explored how this gap is creating tension in the Moapa Valley outside Las Vegas, where water rights holders include the Warren Buffett-owned utility NV Energy. (The company once used its water at the since-closed Reid Gardner coal plant, which produced electricity that was used to move water around in California.)

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“Levi Sap Nei Thang has no known history in the energy business, although she has seen success developing fragrances and designing handbags.” But this year she has purchased the right to drill for oil and gas on thousands of acres in six Western states, per the Salt Lake Tribune’s Brian Maffly, as the Trump administration continues to sell off leases despite low oil prices. Critics say the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing program has encouraged excessive speculation for public resources.

People are littering their disposable masks and gloves. The environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay just completed its annual Los Angeles County beach cleanup, and the group reports that personal protective equipment was the 10th-most common trash item found by volunteers this year, as my colleague Alex Wigglesworth reports. All I can say is … please, please don’t be that person.

What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

Let’s end on a positive note. We’ve published several stories this week about rescued animals, including the twin mountain lion cubs who were orphaned by the Zogg fire and have now found refuge at the Oakland Zoo (“The pair can be seen on video flashing their brilliant eyes and periodically baring their tiny teeth,” Luke Money writes) and the 10-year-old black bear whose paws were burned by the North Complex fire and who has now been released back into the wild after treatment (story by Hayley Smith).

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But my favorite is this story by Faith E. Pinho about the mountain lion cub who recovered her roar after being found emaciated, dehydrated and weak in the San Jacinto Mountains near Idyllwild. I mean, just look at her picture:

Mountain lion cub sitting on her hind legs with her mouth wide open for a roar.
The cub has doubled in weight in the last month and is set to be transferred to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Arizona in about a week.
(San Diego Humane Society)

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