Climate Change and Bad Planning Caused California’s Rolling Blackouts

Climate Change and Bad Planning Caused California’s Rolling Blackouts
Electrical power line towers are seen in Los Angeles in mid-August during a triple-digit heatwave gripping the area. (Photo: Robyn Beck, Getty Images)

Amid record breaking heat in mid-August, energy officials cut power to millions of people across California for up to 90 minutes at a time. In a preliminary report released Tuesday, the state’s three main energy agencies unpacked exactly why those blackouts happened. The finding show the state wasn’t ready despite the warning signs, and that agencies will need to do a better job as the climate crisis worsens.

The California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission and California Independent System Operator said that a key reason for the blackouts were stress on utilities from climate change-induced extreme heat (like, really extreme). The report said that “the heat storm experienced in August was a 1-in-35 year weather event,” according to a California Energy Commission analysis. In those conditions, demand for air conditioning and other utilities spiked as people stayed at home to beat the heat. The coronavirus put further strain on the grid as people were more likely to run separate air conditioning units rather than congregating in public locations with cooling.

“Climate change is disrupting our infrastructure, including our electricity grid,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said. “We need to act faster to cut emissions. The heat waves and fires that have plagued California all summer are a warning of what is to come.”

But though the heat was the catalyst, the agencies also said their lack of preparedness for that heat played a key role. The analysis said they should have known that amid the climate crisis, this level of heat was on the way and used that to predict demand.

Since officials failed to properly predict the state’s demand a day ahead of time, they didn’t buy enough energy to power all homes and establishments. Instead, utility companies across the state under-scheduled the amount of energy they thought would be needed and allowed power plant operators to sell too much energy to other states’ utilities. This resulted in thousands of megawatts being exported even while officials were warning that rolling blackouts were on the way.

The analysis also says that some wonky market mechanisms are in part to blame for the blackouts. For instance, the state’s Independent System Operator uses a program known as convergence bidding to bid on energy a day ahead of time. It’s meant to keep the price of utilities consistent, but in this case, the report said it “masked tight supply conditions.”

Another crucial factor in the outages was the fact that some power sources went offline. Initially, it looked like natural gas plants were the culprits, and the report bears that conclusion out. The heat caused up to 2,000 megawatts in forced outages in the state’s natural gas fleet, combined with an additional 400 megawatts of planned outages of gas plants.

Troublingly, the state and its utility firms are extending the life of four old, polluting natural gas power plants that were slated to be shuttered this year. Shana Lazerow, a staff attorney at environmental justice nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment, expected that this would happen. In an interview in mid-August, she said she felt natural gas companies would use the threat of blackouts as a way to push for their interests.

“I think they’re just salivating,” she said of the natural gas industry. “They’re just rubbing their hands together in glee, because they know that they’re going to be retired.”

She explained that in the early 2000s, electricity traders at the company Enron manipulated California’s energy market by withholding electricity. In the years following, California’s fossil fuel fleet nearly doubled.

“I’m not saying there was that exact kind of market manipulation,” said Lazerow. “But if they go by the Enron playbook, they can say the state needs more natural gas to provide a backup for unreliable renewables.”

In a statement to the LA Times, Loretta Lynch, who led the state’s Public Utilities Commission at the time, also expressed concern that corporate power traders may be manipulating the energy market to increase their profits.

A more sustainable way to ensure that California can provide renewable energy amid surging demand and hotter weather would be to increase the state’s use of battery storage, which the report says is part of the plan. Shortly after the blackouts, California brought the world’s largest battery online. The state also said it plans to focus more on demand response programs, in which energy users are incentivized to reduce their electricity consumption during peak demand times.

State law requires that California phases out fossil fuel power and move toward 100% renewable energy by 2045. Energy officials must prepare for the ways that could change the utility market. Amid the climate crisis, California is also expected to get even hotter, which will pose further complications without preparation.

“It is our responsibility and intent to plan for such events, which are becoming increasingly common in a world rapidly being impacted by climate change,” the report said.