The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California scrambles to avoid blackouts as it pursues a green energy future

The state’s power grid, at the forefront of America’s energy transition, is under threat from an unprecedented September heat wave

Electrical transmission towers at a PG&E electrical substation during a heat wave in Vacaville, Calif., on Sept. 6. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

California’s risk of widespread blackouts this week is forcing millions of residents to keep the grid afloat by jacking up thermostats and shutting off appliances, but they are not the only ones feeling the heat. The lawmakers and regulators behind the state’s emphatic embrace of green energy are feeling it too.

Even before this week’s historic September heat wave, the state’s wobbly grid, with a history of disrupting political careers, had become a fresh target for critics of California’s climate-forward energy policies. The same state that is rushing to rid its roads of gas-powered vehicles was pleading with electric car drivers this week not to recharge during peak hours. Meanwhile, aging natural gas-fired generators that California wants to eradicate are being leaned on heavily to keep the lights on. And the state is scrambling to postpone the closure of a nuclear plant that officials earlier said would be made obsolete by sun and wind power.

Yet California is redoubling its commitment — arguing that the culprit of its energy woes is not the aggressive pace of its transition but the climate change that transition is designed to confront.

“We understand we cannot have the lights go off,” said Siva Gunda, vice chair of the California Energy Commission. “But the fear of these questions being brought up is not a reason to slow down from what we know is morally and societally what we need to do.”

Millions of Californians received alerts on their cellphones this week warning that the grid was in peril and “power interruptions may occur unless you take action.” The phone alerts were credited with averting blackouts on Tuesday, as power use dropped substantially minutes after they were sent. The grid was expected to face more stressful moments this week as the heat wave persists in parts of the state, but the pressure on the grid was expected to be less after Tuesday.

Historic, unforgiving Western heat wave is peaking and crushing records

Californians pulled a record amount of energy from the grid Tuesday, as the punishing heat wave pushed air-conditioning use far beyond the levels regulators had forecast. Modeling by the Energy Commission had suggested there was only a 1 percent chance of the kind of heat the state is experiencing this week.

Some Californians are grappling with the question of whether these power disruptions are a temporary blip as the state meets the challenge of extreme temperatures, or the new normal.

“I don’t remember this many days this hot in a row,” said David Plenn, 70, longtime owner of the Dinosaur Farm toy store in South Pasadena. Contemplating what’s coming, Plenn said: “Now we’ve got all e-cars, the grid is not holding. … Someone better be working on that.”

Californians have long been among the earliest adopters of climate-friendly technologies: Nearly half of the country’s electric cars are registered in the state, and it is moving to phase out new gas-powered cars by 2035. Just last week, the legislature passed a flurry of bills aimed at making the state carbon neutral by 2045. When the state asked residents to reduce their electricity use Tuesday afternoon, they heeded the call.

Michele Ost, a 28-year-old student who lives in the town of Monterey Park east of downtown Los Angeles, said she and her three roommates aren’t in control of the AC in their condo — their landlord is — but decided to do what they could to conserve energy by doing all their laundry in the morning.

The heat “is definitely something that’s getting worse,” said Ost, keeping cool at a coffee shop. “It’s hard to ignore global warming.”

Michelle Round, owner of the Heatherbloom clothing store in tony San Marino, was getting her fall merchandise in — sweaters and coats — even as the sidewalks outside broiled in 100-degree-plus temps.

Round said that in the past she has cranked up the air conditioning to create “sweater weather” and sell her fall products — but “I wouldn’t do that now.” Instead, she set the thermostat to 78 degrees, as recommended by state officials.

As northern California experiences one of its longest and hottest heat wave to date, residents struggle to stay cool amidst record-breaking temperatures. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Despite the buy-in, continued disruption of the power grid threatens to weaken public enthusiasm for such measures. Replacing natural gas-fueled plants with less consistent wind and solar energy is a balancing act, and even some leaders of that transition say lawmakers and regulators have at times allowed their policy ambitions to cloud their judgment.

The price of renewable energy installations has also gone sharply up as developers struggle with supply chain disruptions and a trade dispute that hobbled the sale of solar panels for months.

“California has to be coldly realistic about matching its loads and resources,” said Bob Foster, a former chair of the board governing California’s grid operations. “You can’t just wish it to be so. You have to be very realistic. They are on the right path, but maybe in a little bit too much of a hurry.”

The state’s energy infrastructure is under unprecedented stress. Aging transmission lines are fraying and unreliable, hydroelectric power is in short supply amid drought, and neighboring states that California has looked to for supplemental power have less to spare as heat domes settle over them, too.

“The root of the problem here is that climate change keeps surprising us and being worse than we thought,” said Severin Borenstein, a faculty director of the Energy Institute at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “People who live in areas where we never thought air conditioning would be needed are now installing it. That is where all the problems are coming from on days like these.”

He said the inconvenience of temporary blackouts is nothing compared with the upheaval and displacement climate change is causing around the world. “This is trying to avoid those catastrophic changes,” he said. “It is not going to be without bumps.”

Some enthusiastic clean energy boosters are frustrated by how things are playing out in the state this week. Advocates in the state’s underserved urban communities were dismayed to see restrictions on factories using diesel generators lifted so they could be fired up to ease stress on the grid.

“We’ve known for years this kind of heat wave was coming,” said Ari Eisenstadt, a campaign manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “We can’t keep saying this is unprecedented — when we know it will happen next year, too — and act surprised and then say, ‘Let’s turn up those generators which spew toxic pollution into low-income communities of color.’ ”

The fight to save energy by controlling your thermostat (and pool pump)

Eisenstadt said the state’s problem is not green energy but its halting embrace of the innovations that unleash all of green energy’s potential.

Electric cars, many energy economists say, are likely to help stabilize California’s power system in the future: Their batteries serve as storage vessels for wind and solar power that could be fed back into the grid as needed. Meanwhile, new technologies that enable renewable energy to be stored and redistributed on an industrial scale — using batteries that are the size of a small cottage — are coming online.

Some energy scholars say California would have more than enough capacity if it harnessed its resources better. But outdated energy market rules make it tough for power providers to tap into all the potential resources.

“There is more power out there than we need to stabilize the grid on these few days a year it is under stress,” said Rajit Gadh, director of the Smart Grid Energy Research Center at UCLA. “We just need to get the control systems and the infrastructure in place, and give people incentives.”

One model that is working involves 4,500 California owners of Powerwall batteries, a product built by Tesla for homeowners to store their rooftop solar energy for use as backup power in the event of an outage. The systems turn out to also be useful for the grid, with owners selling utilities the power stored on extreme heat days.

An app called Lastbulb built by electrification advocate Rick Davis tracks the amount of electricity the batteries send back to the grid. It shows big potential, if the cost of the Tesla product comes down and it is owned by more than just early adopters.

“I’m optimistic that humanity will figure out how to have a fully sustainable energy future, but in the short term it will be painful,” said Davis, a Powerwall owner in the Bay Area. “Transitions, in general, are painful.”

The state recently reconsidered its planned 2025 closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which supplies about 6 percent of the state’s electricity. After Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) warned that there may not be enough renewable energy available to reliably backfill all that power, lawmakers last week voted to push the plant’s retirement date back five years and lend its owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, up to $1.4 billion to keep it operating.

The state at the same time also signaled that the move should not be interpreted as a retreat from California’s green energy ambitions, with lawmakers passing several sweeping and costly climate measures along with it.

The measures were big victories for Newsom, who has signaled he may have presidential ambitions. But if there is one lesson California politicians have learned, it is that when the power grid goes down, their political fortunes tend to go with it. The threat of blackouts is expected to persist in California for at least the next few years as the state works to shore up its power systems.

“It’s sobering,” said Robert Weisenmiller, a former chair of the California Energy Commission. “There is not much room to screw up.”

Werner reported from Los Angeles.