California Scrambles For Another Day To Avoid Rolling Blackouts

Aug 19, 2020
Originally published on August 19, 2020 6:19 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in California, we've had almost a week of rolling blackouts. And NPR's Lauren Sommer has been asking how to keep this from becoming normal.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: As afternoon temperatures inched above 110 degrees in California's Central Valley on Monday, the state's grid operator knew the toughest moment was still to come. As CEO Steve Berberich warned in a midday briefing, with air conditioners blazing, they needed to find more electricity.

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STEVE BERBERICH: We are scouring every corner of our world.

SOMMER: Because at sunset, the state's solar farms turn off. Normally on hot days, that's not a problem. California can get a little extra electricity by importing from other states. But this heatwave stretched from Oregon to Texas, so no one had much to share.

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BERBERICH: We loathe cutting off power and do it as a last resort.

SOMMER: Members of the public, who called in for the briefing, weren't happy.

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STEVE VOGELSANG: Yes. Hi, I'm Steve Vogelsang. I live out here in the Coachella Valley. Southern Cal Edison has been cutting us off at 120 degrees for five hours with no cooling centers available thanks to COVID-19.

SOMMER: Most cities have been offering cooling centers, but the pandemic has limited their capacity. To figure out how much electricity California needs over the summer, state regulators run forecasts. But those outlooks don't account for extreme temperatures.

SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: The last few years in California has been one giant climate change wakeup call.

SOMMER: Severin Borenstein is a professor at UC Berkeley and is on the board of California's grid operator. He says a lot of people are blaming solar right now because it drops off at the end of the day.

BORENSTEIN: I don't think this is the fault of solar at all. I think it means that we have to take a new planning approach.

SOMMER: He says one solution is simply to reduce demand, incentivize people to use less on hot days.

BORENSTEIN: If we could get people to just reset their air conditioning 4 degrees warmer, we would probably be able to get through even the very tough Monday and Tuesday of this week.

SOMMER: Another solution - giant batteries that charge up during the day and provide electricity when solar turns off. California has already mandated more storage be installed. But while the state is trying to move away from fossil fuels, some argue the blackouts make the case for keeping them around. Mark Specht, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, disagrees.

MARK SPECHT: The solution is definitely not more natural gas power plants. Really, if anything, this is an indication that California should speed up its investments in clean energy and energy storage.

SOMMER: After all, he says, climate change is making heat waves worse, so burning more fossil fuels to deal with that is somewhat counterproductive.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.