California Avoids Rolling Blackouts Despite Record Heat

Source: By Shawn Hubler, Kellen Browning, Ivan Penn and Jill Cowan, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Cities across California set record high temperatures on Tuesday, including Sacramento at 116 degrees, pushing energy demand to a record, too. The heat wave will continue on Wednesday.

An attempt to cool off during the extreme heat in Sacramento on Tuesday.
Rachel Bujalski for The New York Times

SACRAMENTO — Wildfires raged at both ends of California. Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor, warned of “unprecedented” heat. The power grid teetered on the brink of outages into the evening.

But as California endured its sixth day under a ferocious heat dome, the nation’s most populous state narrowly managed to avert rolling blackouts, even as temperature and energy use records shattered on Tuesday and power grid officials begged homeowners to turn down their air conditioning.

The mere maintenance of electricity in most of the state was celebrated as a minor triumph after California’s Independent System Operator, which manages most of the state’s grid, issued a “Level 3” emergency alert earlier in the evening, a sign that outages were imminent.

By then Sacramento, the state capital, had reached a suffocating 116 degrees, its highest-ever recorded temperature, prompting soccer leagues to cancel practices, gardeners to stop working at noon and schools to keep students indoors during recess.

“I’ve been here for 30 years, and I can’t remember it ever being this hot this many days in a row,” said Jeff Williamson, 53, a commercial roofing contractor who was standing outside a Sacramento coffee shop as a blinding sun drove the morning air toward 90 degrees before breakfast. The sky was so blue that the very atmosphere seemed stripped of a layer.

“You can taste it,” Mr. Williamson said. “People say it’s a dry heat. Well, so’s an open flame.”

After a scorching Labor Day weekend that fueled deadly wildfiresand freakish desert downpours, temperatures soared even higher on Tuesday. About 42 million Americans were under excessive heat warnings, including those in parts of Nevada and Arizona, with red-flag fire conditions covering the Pacific Northwest, Montana and Idaho.

Eric Weber, an outreach worker with the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, handed out water in Indio, Calif.
Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Fresno broke a century-old record for the day, hitting 114 degrees. Santa Rosa in Wine Country hit 115 degrees, another record. Livermore hit 116 degrees, matching a record set Monday. To the north, the city of Ukiah shattered its record, reaching 117 degrees. Even some neighborhoods in reliably cool San Francisco flirted with triple digits.

Throughout the day, state officials pleaded desperately for conservation. Strategic blackouts are integral to managing the grid, allowing the state to preserve energy supplies when demand soars. Utilities cut power to designated neighborhoods and regions for a set period of time, trying to spread the pain as evenly as possible in an era when power outlets drive more aspects of American living than ever before.

But blackouts can have severe health consequences for the most vulnerable residents, particularly older people who cannot handle high temperatures or who rely on lifesaving devices. And politically, outages have loomed perilously over California leaders ever since Gray Davis was recalled as governor in 2003 and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. Davis presided over the state just as California’s deregulated energy market fell prey to traders, forcing the state to shut off power. While Mr. Davis had other political vulnerabilities, voters remembered him in part as the governor who could not keep the lights on.

For Mr. Newsom, a rising Democratic star who has pointedly compared California’s handling of climate-driven emergencies with those of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Republican administration in Texas, the ability to forestall outages was both practically and politically important. In a recorded message released early Tuesday, Mr. Newsom had warned urgently that “the risk for outages is real.”

By midafternoon, the state had broken a record, set 16 years ago, for energy use, with demand forecasts topping 52,000 megawatts. At 5:30 p.m., California ISO issued its highest level of alert — the last possible precursor for blackouts, and a few Northern California cities cut power to some areas over the course of about an hour.

By 8 p.m., however, the operator had dialed back its warning.

“Thank you, California,” the ISO tweeted, noting that “consumer conservation played a big part” in averting the crisis.

“Record-breaking temperatures. More demand on our energy grid than ever before. But we avoided emergency power outages tonight,” Mr. Newsom tweeted. “We can do this. If we keep it up we can get through this unprecedented heatwave.”

California hasn’t initiated blackouts since August 2020, when the state took that desperate step because it could no longer supply enough power to meet demand.

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A group playing dominoes at the South Berkeley Senior Center, which was designated as a cooling center for those who needed to escape the heat in Berkeley, Calif.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Daniel L. Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the heat that had settled over much of the West had been “extraordinary in almost every dimension except humidity.”

The danger, he added, was not just in the exceptional heat, but also its “mind-blowing” duration. “Sacramento has rarely seen temperatures of 110 degrees plus for three, four days on end,” he said.

The cumulative impact, Mr. Swain said, has not only superheated air masses during the day but has also made nights warmer, worsening drought, turning trees and brush into tinder and intensifying fire risks.

“We’re going on a week now in a lot of the state where the temperatures, even at night, don’t go below 85 degrees, right before the autumn wind season,” Mr. Swain said. “What do you think that’s doing to vegetation? Nothing good.”

After enduring calamitous fires in the past few years, California residents now brace every summer and fall for weeks of infernos and smoke-filled skies. But this year’s fire season has by many measures been less intense so far. Last year, enormous fires burned more than 2.5 million acres in California; just 241,074 acres have burned so far in 2022.

Still, the weeks ahead typically comprise the worst of fire season.

More than a dozen large fires roared Tuesday throughout the state, with 45 new blazes erupting statewide on Sunday alone, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Fairview fire near Hemet had spread to 4,500 acres, killing two people who appeared to have been trying to escape, destroying at least seven structures and prompting evacuations. The Hemet Unified School District closed schools on Tuesday for its 24,000 students.

Those deaths were in addition to two over the weekend from the Mill fire, which erupted on Friday near a defunct lumber mill in the town of Weed, Calif., near the Oregon border. It was 60 percent contained by Tuesday night after consuming more than 4,200 acres and destroying at least 100 homes, local officials said, including in the Lincoln Heights area of Weed, a historically Black community founded by mill workers in the 1920s.

A few miles to the west, the Mountain fire in Siskiyou County grew to more than 11,000 acres, a land mass roughly the size of the city of Berkeley. Chewing through steep canyons rattling with dry vegetation, it was only 30 percent contained, the state fire authorities said.

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A helicopter dropping water on the Fairview fire near Hemet, Calif.
Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

In parts of Los Angeles County, a 15-day outdoor watering banamplified the misery index for about four million customers of the Metropolitan Water District as crews made planned repairs to a pipeline that carries water from the Colorado River to Southern California. In San Diego, parts of the cooling system broke down in a 22-story courthouse downtown. At U.C.L.A., students and faculty members finishing up the summer term were told to work remotely rather than spend time in dozens of buildings that wouldn’t have air-conditioning.

Some of the biggest concerns were in the bay-hugging cities of Oakland and San Francisco, where sea breezes are so reliable that few buildings have air-conditioning. Temperatures soared past 90 degrees in some neighborhoods before midafternoon winds provided welcome relief.

BART trains operated at reduced speeds for most of the day because of the potential for heat-warped tracks to cause derailments. Oakland officials set up a large white tent with a large fan and a mister near a prominent freeway homeless encampment and tried to move some people into tiny houses.

“It’s OK in the shade,” Jude Murcgacz, a 49-year-old encampment resident, said as he held two small dogs. “The sun is pretty hard.”

The most intense heat was concentrated on Tuesday in Northern California and the Central Valley, where government agencies turned up office thermostats to save energy and outdoor workers were sent home early.

In Livermore — where more than 5,800 Pacific Gas & Electric customers lost power Monday evening for several hours because of equipment failures related to 116-degree heat and high demand, PG&E said — some families brought their children downtown to splash in public fountains, seeking relief.

“This is definitely global warming,” Tami Vusia said as her 4-year-old daughter Zella played in the water. Worried about heat exhaustion, she said she had brought her child from nearby Fremont because she does not have air-conditioning.

Though Tuesday was expected to be the most extreme day for heat during this spell, meteorologists said the heat was unlikely to ease much in California before Thursday and could linger beyond that in other parts of the West. In the longer term, it is a harbinger of a new normal, Mr. Swain of U.C.L.A. said.

“The number of heat events that would have been impossible to fathom in the 20th century that have happened in the last three months is astonishing,” Mr. Swain said. “Wildfires burning rowhouses in London. The heat wave for weeks on end in China. Now this. The extraordinary has become ordinary when it comes to extreme heat.”

Holly Secon contributed reporting.

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