How California’s Heat Wave Almost Broke the State’s Power Grid


This past week, Californians endured a brutal heat wave that shattered all time records. The state saw record temperatures, including an all-time high of 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Sacramento on Tuesday, breaking its 97-year record. In the south, Death Valley hit 124 degrees, which is just 1 degree shy of its hottest September temperature. For the duration of the week, millions of residents remained under heat advisory, and record high temperatures fueled ravaging wildfires and threatened rolling power shutoffs. Peak demand hit an all-time high of 52,061 megawatts of power last Tuesday. The previous record was set in 2006 at 50,000. (For context, 1 megawatt can power the average American home for 1.2 months.) The demand for so much power in such a short period of time in comparison to standard energy consumption for the state has led to increasing concern that the power grid will be completely overwhelmed and that widespread blackouts will soon follow. 

Pacific Gas & Electric, the U.S.’s largest utility, has alerted hundreds of thousands of customers to prepare for potential outages, and California residents have been instructed to conserve power in an attempt to avoid such shutdowns. The California Independent System Operator issued a Flex Alert, calling for residents to set their thermostats above 78 degrees, stop the use of major appliances, and shut all unnecessary lights off between the hours of 4 and 9 PM. 

California’s often unstable power grid has become a target for many critics of the state’s climate-forward energy policies. Many residents have protested that the same state that is encouraging drivers to switch to electric vehicles is also pleading with residents to decrease their electricity consumption. Lawmakers seek to eliminate energy-guzzling natural gas-fired generators, but these generators are the main source of energy that California residents use to keep their lights on. Despite this, state officials argue that the main issue is not the nature of the transition from fossil fuels to solar and wind power; rather, it is the climate change that the transition is designed to combat that is the culprit.

Many Californians question whether the power disruptions that they have been facing this past week are a result of one, isolated heat wave, or the new normal as the state continues to adjust to the challenges of extreme temperatures amidst its energy transition. Residents have historically been supportive of green initiatives, as the state was among one of the earliest in the nation to adopt climate-friendly technologies. Nearly half of all electric vehicles in the U.S. are owned by Californians, and the state leads the country in solar power, surpassing the cumulative solar capacity of Texas, the next biggest solar power generator, by over three times. Nevertheless, continued looming threats of blackouts and power outages will weaken public support for these energy-conscious measures. While replacing natural gas with solar and wind is a net benefit, the oftentimes less consistent power supply will always be a balancing act. As the state continues to push toward a more sustainable future in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave, lawmakers must continue to do what they can to ensure that the public continues to stay supportive of these efforts.