The record-breaking heat that baked Southern California and prompted mass power outages last weekend was just a taste of what is to come. Summers in SoCal have already been getting hotter over the last century. Climate change is expected to produce more frequent and more blistering heat waves in the coming years that will put unprecedented stress on the electrical grid and challenge utilities to keep the power on.
Los Angeles, apparently, isn’t ready for the new normal. The demand for electricity Friday, Saturday and Sunday overwhelmed the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s aged system, prompting power outages that affected more than 80,000 customers. The unluckiest people went 48 hours without electricity; they and many others had to evacuate their homes in search of air conditioning elsewhere.
Los Angeles wasn’t alone. Other communities, including some served by Southern California Edison, experienced heat-related electrical outages. But the number and duration of the power problems in Los Angeles should be a wake-up call that there is a lot of work needed to make the city more resilient as heat waves like this become more common.
Preparing for a hotter future won’t be cheap or easy.
The number of days over 95 degrees could triple or quadruple by 2050, UCLA scientists have forecast. That means increased electricity demand as people crank up the AC. It also means more residents will install air conditioning, putting additional strain on the electrical grid. Such temperatures can be deadly to residents without air conditioning — or those who lose their air conditioning in a power outage.
In Los Angeles, the power situation last weekend was complicated by several factors. With the severity of the heat wave — triple digits across much of the city, with record-setting temperatures in many areas — more people switched on the air conditioning, creating near-record demand for electricity. And because the temperatures didn’t drop overnight, more people keep their air conditioners running. That further strained the electrical system and caused more outages.
Communities in the DWP’s “metro” area — neighborhoods in the central city south of Mulholland Drive — were hit particularly hard. These areas (unlike, say, the San Fernando Valley) don’t usually get temperatures in the triple digits for extended periods of time and have older electrical infrastructure that is often underground and takes longer to repair. The result was widespread and lengthy outages.
To make the electrical grid more resilient, it has to be more reliable. The DWP has an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance projects, leaving its system vulnerable. After heat waves in 2006 and 2007 caused mass outages, the utility launched an ambitious plan to replace old and overloaded electrical distribution equipment. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council then hiked customers’ rates in 2016 to expedite the modernization of the electrical system, but officials say it will still take decades to catch up.
The solution has to go beyond electrical wires and circuits. The DWP has to work closely with customers to keep their homes and their communities cooler so there is less demand for power.
It means getting more homes and businesses to install solar panels to provide their own power and take pressure off the grid. It means ramping up energy efficiency programs to encourage more customers to invest in “power-sipping” appliances, double-paned windows, insulation and other products that can both lower electricity demand and cool a home. California has been a national leader in requiring that new appliances and buildings be energy efficient.
There needs to be greater focus on making older buildings energy efficient and getting landlords to modernize their apartment buildings. That’s especially important in low-income communities and neighborhoods where, in the past, air conditioning was often viewed as an unaffordable luxury. Residents in those areas will be increasingly vulnerable as the number and severity of heat waves increase.
The DWP and the city also need be more aggressive in planting shade trees around homes and businesses, and replacing dark pavement and roof tiles with light-colored materials that reflect, instead of absorb, heat.
Preparing for a hotter future won’t be cheap or easy. But the past weekend provided a worrisome glimpse into what will happen in Los Angeles if we don’t.