Hundreds of thousands of Californians are facing down a continuing, extreme heat wave, while coping with power system blackouts brought on by a new round of uncontrolled wildfires that are “knocking out power plants, triggering evacuations, and threatening to take out the lights no matter how much the state conserves,” Bloomberg Green reports.
“As climate change contributes to ever extreme weather, the region’s heat, wildfire, and blackout woes are only getting worse,” the news agency wrote over the weekend, and “the heat forecast to suffocate California through Tuesday is expected to grow even worse than the August one.” Forecasters were calling for 110°F/43°C heat in Los Angeles and 111°F/43.8°C in Sacramento, with temperature records already falling in places like Napa and Paso Robles.
Wholesale electricity prices in southern California hit US$400 per megawatt-hour (40¢ per kilowatt-hour) on Friday, and Wildfire Today said the Creek Fire near Huntington Lake, CA had burned 36,000 acres/about 14,575 hectares in just 24 hours.
By Sunday morning, it was up to 45,500 acres and had trapped about 1,000 people, 200 of whom were airlifted from a campground by military helicopters, the Washington Post reported. And mammoth utility PG&E said it might have to cut power to 103,000 households Monday evening, explaining that “it would shut down power lines in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada foothills to keep them from tangling with tree limbs and sparking fires if offshore winds expected to arrive Monday night pose a threat,” Bloomberg Green wrote.
“A sobering thought: only thing stopping a number of California cities from hitting new all-time record high temperatures Sun[day] may be dense pall of smoke from explosively growing wildfires,” tweeted climate scientist Daniel Swain. “I expect [California] to set new record for acres burned in modern era by…Monday.”
“Are #climate scientists alarmist?” Swain added in a pinned tweet from 2018. “Well, we’re certainly alarmed. But that’s different. The thing about shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre is that it makes total sense if the theatre is actually on fire. When it comes to #ClimateChange, that’s essentially where we are right now.”
Major swaths of California had already been beset by a two-week run of wildfires that included two of the state’s five worst blazes ever, prompting the CalFire state firefighting agency to christen the last half of August a “fire siege”, the Washington Post reported. As predicted at the time, the hot, dry conditions have persisted into early September.
“Extreme heat in southern California could set all-time high temperature records with the possibility of rolling power blackouts and more wildfires,” Wildfire Today reported, with some inland cities posting temperatures 10 to 20°F (5.5 to 11°C) above normal through Monday. Mid-August news reports had the Loyalton Fire northwest of Reno, Nevada producing a fire tornado warning, the Pine Gulch fire at risk of becoming the largest in Colorado history, and one of the California fires destroying an 80-acre/32-hectare sanctuary for endangered condors in Big Sur.
“The siege resulted from a unique combination of factors: an intense heat wave that broke monthly temperature records, including a 130°F reading in Death Valley, CA., which is one of the hottest temperatures ever reliably recorded on Earth,” the Post wrote. “The heat helped dry out already parched vegetation, providing ample fuel for fires once they got going. In addition, gusty winds helped spark extreme fire behaviour, including a verified fire tornado August 15 in Lassen County.”
But those fires “would not have happened had it not been for a rare outbreak of lightning, which focused its assault on the San Francisco Bay area northeastward to the border between California and Oregon,” the paper adds.
13,000 Lightning Strikes, 25 Times the Area Burned
By early September, more than 13,000 lightning strikes across the state triggered hundreds of wildfires that had burned 1.4 million acres/566,559 hectares—25 times more than the area affected at this time last year. Several people were dead, 170,000 were under evacuation orders, thousands of buildings had been destroyed or damaged, and Grist was citing Swain to explain the link to climate change.
“Climate change drives wildfires primarily by drying things out, allowing fires to burn hotter, faster, and bigger,” the online publication wrote. “As temperatures rise, evaporation increases, leaving less water available for plants. Climate change is also decreasing the amount of moisture in the air, known as the vapour pressure deficit, further drying out vegetation.”
Even so, “it may be a while…before we know just how much of a role climate change played in this year’s fire season,” Grist continued. “Attribution—the sub-field of climate science that looks at the extent to which a particular weather event is made more likely or more severe by global warming—takes time to calculate. Wildfire attribution is particularly complicated, because unlike hurricane or flood events, direct human influence—including land management and accidental ignitions—is also a major contributing factor.”
Swain, part of a team that is just now completing an attribution study for California’s 2018 wildfire season, said that scientific reality matches up poorly with standard news cycles. “If you do (the studies) carefully, they often don’t come out until well after the event in question is over and the cleanup has largely moved out of people’s minds,” he told Grist. “So there is a bit of a disconnect or a time lag between when it’s maximally publicly visible in the news and when the science says, ‘Yeah, actually climate change played a big role in this.’”
Grist has more on the “soft attribution” technique that Swain and others have begun using to tell the story. The New York Times published on explainer on the four ingredients of the state’s “disastrous wildfire seasons”, with climate change figuring prominently, while InsideClimate News cited the blazes in California and Colorado as an example of a bigger global trend.
“Wildfires from Australia to Siberia are not just larger, hotter, and faster, but burning in areas and seasons where they were previously rare,” InsideClimate wrote. “Siberia experienced unprecedented, 100°F/38°C temperatures and record-low soil moisture that drove epic fires, from the boreal forests to peatlands, swamps, permafrost, and tundra in June,” covering some areas that are “usually frozen through most of the year.”
Pandemic Adds to Wildfire Risk
The scale and intensity of the fires and heat aren’t the only challenge this year. “Conditions are made even more perilous by the worst pandemic in a century,” the Washington Post wrote last month. “Tens of thousands of people are trying to escape wildfires and extreme heat at a time when they are also asked to wear masks and keep a distance from strangers. And as a hurricane season turbocharged by heat gets under way, the virus promises to complicate responses.”
InsideClimate also pointed to the ozone and fine particulate matter contained in wildfire smoke and its connection to heart and lung disease, its impact on people with compromised immune system, and its role in increasing vulnerability to COVID-19. And the New York Times reported on another climate predicament facing the state, as insurance companies begin withdrawing their services in fire-prone areas and leaving homeowners at risk.
With more than 26,000 personnel fighting the California and Colorado fires as of late August, this year’s fire season has also renewed attention to a long-standing arrangement that has California inmates earning just $1 per hour to fight wildfires. A practice recently condemned as forced labour is now bouncing back on the state in an unexpected way, as the early release of many inmates to protect them from possible COVID-19 exposure has reduced the available labour pool for firefighting.
“To critics the prison program is a cheap and exploitative salve, one that should be replaced with proper public investment in firefighting,” the New York Times wrote. “To others it is an essential part of the state’s response to what has become an annual wildfire crisis. Some have complained that participants were released just when the state needed them most.”
For many of the inmates themselves, the searing irony of taking on the dangerous, backbreaking work of fighting fires is that they often can’t apply for similar jobs after they’ve done their time, even if they feel a deep dedication to their work as wildfire fighters.
In the Washington Post, columnist Danielle Allen told the story of her late cousin, Michael A., an inmate firefighter to whom the job was everything. “Some underestimate the work of using a saw during a fire which is why many don’t last on the saw. To use the saw takes strength, determination, and heart. It is a very grueling task and probably the most important one,” Michael wrote.
“The most painful part of Michael’s re-entry was that there was no way for him to be considered for employment on any of the fire crews he’d worked with,” Allen explained. “Michael had found his calling—tear-inducing, breath-smothering work fighting wildfires. The fire camps, though, were not in Los Angeles, and the law required Michael to be paroled back to the county where he had committed his crimes. The path he’d found during incarceration was no longer available to him.”
Too late for Michael, Wildfire Today reports this month that California has adopted legislation allowing inmate fire crew members to pursue a career in firefighting, as at least one team in New Mexico is already doing.
Rolling Blackouts Drive Power Grid Debate
The rolling blackouts that began in California in the second half of August rekindled a debate about whether the state’s ambitious effort to decarbonize its electricity grid is more complicated than it may have seemed. “We thought there would be adequate power to supply the demand,” said Stephen Berberich, president of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). “We were wrong.”
The blackouts, California’s first since 2001, resulted from heavy air conditioning demand in the heat wave, combined with unplanned outages at a number of gas plants, limited availability of imported power from neighbouring states, and insufficient solar and wind generation, and “should give renewable energy advocates pause,” climate scientists Alex Trembath and Zeke Hausfather wrote for Slate August 19.
“For years, renewable energy enthusiasts have insisted that most of the problems of the electric grid were caused by outdated and inflexible coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy technologies,” they added. “A system built on solar panels and wind turbines, smart meters, electricity storage, and payments for flexible demand would lower costs and improve reliability for everyone. Some academic studies showed that renewables could easily supply 80% or more of an electric grid’s demands.”
But “with non-hydroelectric renewable technologies, mostly solar and wind, generating about 30% of California’s electricity today, we are witnessing the types of obstacles and problems that these new technologies introduce.”
Trembath and Hausfather pointed to modelling and advocacy showing that wind and solar generally complement each other—” the wind usually blows while the sun doesn’t shine, and vice versa”—and that higher demand in one region can be matched from another area that has a power surplus. “These are features of a wind-and-solar-heavy system—until they’re bugs,” they wrote. “In California this week, the heat pushed power demand to near record highs, solar generation plummeted in the evening, the winds slowed faster than expected, and the same thing happened in Nevada, Arizona, and other states we usually import electricity from. The result was predictable to anyone who hasn’t been heralding a seamless transition to renewable energy technologies.”
The two authors acknowledge that solar, wind, and storage are modular, cheaper, and easier to deploy than new nuclear plants—which will remain illegal to build in California until there’s a long-term solution to the industry’s long-term waste storage problem. And they say the problem they flag is “at least partially surmountable” through demand response programs that adjust power demand to match fluctuating supply, and with grids that allow regional utilities to trade electricity on a continental scale.
But Greentech Media said California has shut down five gigawatts of generating capacity since 2018, while only adding about 2,200 megawatts of “non-intermittent” generation. That means the state “just hasn’t done enough to keep resource adequacy where it should be, and the reserve margins have gotten tighter more quickly,” said Wade Schauer, Americas research director at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.
That had Trembath and Hausfather warning that “this month’s challenges surface the complexities and difficulties of energy transitions, and the imperative of maintaining a flexible and diverse supply of energy technologies. If this month’s blackouts continue, there is a risk California’s ratepayers will come to associate them with the state’s clean energy transition.”
Blackouts Demand Faster Decarbonization
But the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times said the stumbles on the way to a decarbonized electricity system were good reason to double down on California’s green transition.
“The blackouts are a reason not for California to back away from its commitment to building a sustainable power grid, but to do a better job of making the transition,” the paper opined. “That means moving quickly to build backup capacity and storage facilities that can make power available when solar panels and wind turbines aren’t generating any. It means expediting smart meter installations that help consumers and utilities better control electricity usage by shifting the demand for power to non-peak times. And it means looking ahead so that the state won’t face new shortages in four years, when Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, will begin shutting down.”
Industry newsletter Microgrid Knowledge reinforced that argument with an account of the front-line response after CAISO issued its call for demand response resources August 15—including 22 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps ships, a farm, three microgrids operated by Sunnyvale, California-based Bloom Energy, six smaller microgrids funded under a state program, and a network of home microgrids and networked home appliances. The systems were able to move into “island” mode and isolate themselves from the grid rather than drawing on electricity supplies that were needed elsewhere.
“The whole situation is a testament to what conservation and quick action can do,“ said Jana Ganion, director of sustainability and government affairs at Blue Lake Rancheria, a tribal community in Humboldt County that installed two microgrids in 2016 and had already seen it save lives. “The call for help went out from a number of people including the governor and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to conserve and take demand off the grid,” and “people responded.”
That was after Silicon Valley-based Google led the call for the state to go bold on microgrids. “Google believes that extensive development of microgrids will be essential in the coming years, not only to enhance the resilience of the electric system, but also to reduce its impact on the environment,” the tech behemoth said in a statement. “Google also believes that technologies already exist, and will continue to mature, that make it feasible to build and operate microgrids on a large scale.”
Home energy monitoring company Sense reviewed energy data from 1,100 California homes and concluded that 55% of electricity use during peak evening hours could be shifted to other times a day or reduced.
“To help prevent rolling blackouts, California residents can turn up their thermostats throughout the day or cool their home earlier in the day when renewable energy is abundant on the grid and then turn up the thermostat during the evening hours,” the company explained. “In the future, the electricity grid will be connected to peoples’ homes and automatically control loads in response to high demand.” But even today’s smart home technology can prompt consumers to “reduce or shift consumption when energy supplies are constrained” and reduce the risk of blackouts.
The New York Times said proper management of the “thousands of batteries installed at utilities, businesses, government facilities, and even homes” across the state could have made up for one of the mid-sized gas plants that had fallen off the grid, adding that the moment when California replaces gas plants with storage “appears to be closer than earlier thought”. Solar installer Sunrun announced a partnership to supply free batteries to low-income customers in areas facing serious wildfire risk, Grist said installation of the world’s biggest utility-scale battery could be part of the solution to California’s grid problems, regulators in the U.S. Pacific Northwest were looking to a more formal capacity-sharing system to avoid similar issues, and California regulators were planning their own post-mortem on the blackouts.