Pop Quiz: 10 Things You Should Know About California’s Record-setting Heat Wave

The record heat wave that struck California last week posed the biggest threat to our nation’s electrical grid since a deep freeze that shut down the Texas grid for nearly a week back in February 2020.  This time, Californians were spared the worst: the grid held, thanks to voluntary conservation efforts that averted rolling blackouts.  But it serves as a fresh reminder of just how vulnerable our aging grid has become to climate change – and how residential solar is emerging as a vital part of finding a solution.

As we did with our post on the Texas deep freeze, here’s a 10-point True-False quiz to help sort out the facts of this latest climate crisis, and what it means for the future of America’s electric generating system.

Sacramento, CA, set an all-time record of 116 degrees F on Sept. 6 in the midst of a 10-day heat wave.

  1. Last week’s California heat wave was the worst ever recorded in the state.

True.  The latest California heat wave was unprecedented for its length and intensity.  It took hold on the last day of August and did not let go for 10 days.  During this time, many California cities set all-time temperature records, including the state’s capitol, Sacramento, which reached a blistering 116 degrees F on Sept. 6.  Meanwhile, Death Valley tied a worldwide record for the highest overnight temperature ever recorded – 102 degrees on Sept. 1.  During the heat wave, many California cities sweltered under nighttime temperatures that stayed stubbornly above 85 degrees.  

A giant heat dome that spread over the western United States put a total of 42 million Americans under excessive heat warnings, from Washington to Arizona.  At the same time, more than a dozen major wildfires raged in California, and red-flag fire conditions extended over most of the Pacific Northwest, Montana and Idaho. 

This latest weather episode follows a long, hot summer of heat waves, floods and other severe weather events that have struck around the globe.  In the first week of September alone, the U.S. set more than 1,100 warm weather records, compared to just 36 cold records.  If climate change weren’t a factor, these temperature extremes would roughly balance out.  

More than 1,100 warm temperature records were set in the United States in the first week of September.

  1. The California grid was on the verge of a major blackout during this latest heat wave.

True.  For 10 straight days, the grid’s manager, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), sent out Flex Alerts warnings customers of rolling blackouts if they did not cut back on power use during hours of peak electricity demand.  With the grid stretched to a breaking point, CAISO issued its highest-level Stage 3 emergency power alert on at least one occasion, which led to emergency shutdowns of some equipment and prepared hundreds of thousands of customers for possible blackouts that would take down parts of the grid for up to two hours at a time.

It had been two years since a fierce heat wave in California led to power outages for some 800,000 homes and businesses in August 2020.  Before then, the Golden State had managed to go 19 years without experiencing any major blackouts.  In the latest power emergency, PG&E Corp., the state’s largest utility, warned 525,000 residential and business customers that they might lose power.  In the end, service was suspended to 84,000 customers when electricity demand set a new all-time high on Tuesday, Sept. 6.  CAISO recorded peak electricity demand of 52,061 megawatts that evening, shattering a previous high of 50,270 MW set back in July 2006.

Vehicles drive past a sign on the 110 Freeway warning of extreme heat and urging energy conservation during a heat wave in downtown Los Angeles, California
  1. Voluntary conservation efforts fell short of what was needed to curtail electricity demand. 

False… although it was touch and go there for a while!  On Sept. 6, Gov. Gavin Newsom sent out a recorded message warning that “the risk for outages is real” and that the heat wave was “on track to be the hottest and longest on record” in California.  His message urged residents to “precool” their homes to 72 degrees in the morning, and then turn up the thermostat to 78 degrees during hours of peak demand between 4 and 9 p.m.

CAISO, the state’s grid operator, made similar appeals for energy conservation earlier in the heat wave, but with only modest results.  While customers did manage to cut back their electricity use by 2 percent in response to CAISO’s requests, at least double that amount of power savings was needed to stabilize the grid during peak-demand periods – equal to 3 gigawatts of power savings overall.

The moment of truth came at 5:45 pm on Sept. 6, when CAISO used its mobile phone app to send out an emergency text message to 27 million customers warning that “power interruptions may occur unless you take action.”  Within 45 minutes of this posting, power demand did fall by 2,600 MW, and the day’s energy crisis had passed.  CAISO tweeted later that evening that “Consumer conservation played a big part in protecting electric grid reliability.  Thank you, California.”

  1. People died from heat stroke because they couldn’t run air conditioners during the heat wave.

False.  Thanks to these voluntary conservation efforts, CAISO averted large-scale rolling blackouts, which meant that Californians could keep their air conditioners running around the clock.  However, as a precaution, CAISO did ask customers to turn up their thermostats above 78 degrees during peak-demand hours of 4–9 pm.  That made for some sticky situations, especially in places where outdoor temperatures remained above 80 degrees at night during the heat wave, but these situations were not considered life-threatening.  

The alternative – no access to air conditioning – would have been far worse.  Back in 1955, before air conditioning was commonplace in California, 950 residents died in the Los Angeles basin during a tragic heat wave that still ranks as the state’s second-biggest public health disaster, behind the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  As discussed in another recent blog, heat waves remain America’s leading-source of death from weather-related events, surpassing tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and winter storms.

  1. Electric vehicle owners were asked not to charge their car batteries during the heat wave.

False.  As with air conditioning, CAISO asked operators of electric vehicles to cut back on battery charging during the hours of 4 to 9 pm – when stress on the grid was greatest — but not to stop charging their car batteries altogether.  Most vehicle charging in California occurs overnight or at work during the day anyway.  Those who elect to charge up during peak hours in California end up paying more than twice as much.

But that didn’t stop some critics of California’s recently announced ban on sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035 to say this conservation appeal to EV drivers showed the folly of the state’s climate policies.  This led the governor’s office and head of the Electric Vehicle Association to issue clarifying statements to counter the distortions being made.  

The fact is, with gasoline prices soaring, it now costs only 29% as much to charge an EV with electricity as it does to fill an equivalent compact sedan with gasoline.  And with solar and battery costs still coming down, EVs’ price advantage will continue to grow, according to Energy Sage, an online marketplace funded by the U.S. government.

Graph showing California's progress toward 100 percent clean energy
  1. Solar and wind power production couldn’t keep up with surging power demand during the heat wave.

False.  Granted, solar generation ends when the sun goes down, while daily electricity demand still goes up as people end their work days and settle into their homes at night.  But at least solar and wind power are living up to their end of the bargain.  Since the 2020 blackout, California has added more than 8,000 megawatts of new clean energy, and solar and wind power now provide a quarter of the state’s total power supply on a cumulative basis.  

The real problem is with a shortage of other energy sources that aren’t able to carry the state’s load the rest of the time.  With California facing its worst drought in 1,200 years, its grid has lost 1,000 megawatts of hydropower capacity.  This leaves an aging nuclear power plant and dozens of small, gas-fired peaking units to provide more than half of the state’s generating needs, along with electricity imported from other states.

What California really needs is more battery storage to harness available solar and wind power when the grid doesn’t need it.  California already has the largest amount of utility-scale batteries connected to the grid anywhere in the U.S., totaling 3,163 MW as of June 1.  Another 700 MW of battery storage is coming on line this summer, according to CAISO.  

By 2045, California wants its grid to become completely carbon-free, with utility-scale batteries capable of storing 55 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity.  The just-passed Inflation Reduction Act will give these efforts a boost: a new 30% investment tax credit is available for utility-scale battery installations that are charged by solar power at least 75% of the time.     

Diablo Canyon Nuclear
Diablo Canyon, California’s only remaining nuclear plant, just got a 5-year license extension.

  1. If California hadn’t closed so many of its nuclear and gas-fired power plants, blackouts would not have been a problem during this heat wave.

True.  But this argument only goes so far.  California utilities have retired many older natural-gas fired power plants as the state seeks to generate 90% of its power from carbon-free energy sources by 2035.  But sheer economics are also driving these large-scale plant retirements, as solar and wind become the cheapest sources of new energy in the state.

But, until California adds more battery storage to its grid, the loss of gas-fired peaking units and baseload nuclear plants complicates the state’s energy management picture.  With that in mind, Gov. Newsom signed a law this summer extending the license of the state’s only operating nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, until 2030.  (PG&E, the owner and operator of this 37 year-old facility, also got a $1.4 billion loan to help keep the plant open.)  Newsom had wanted to extend the life of the reactor for another 10 years, since it represents 17% of state’s carbon-free generating capacity.  But state legislators cut the license extension in half, in anticipation of more renewable generating capacity that’s already on the way.

The average payback time for residential solar installations in California is less than six years.

  1. Homeowners with solar power and backup batteries had no reason to fear rolling blackouts.

True.  In California and elsewhere, the only solar homeowners with reasons to fear blackouts are the ones who don’t have batteries.  That’s because grid-connected solar can’t be used during grid outages unless there’s a way to safely divert the power into home batteries and home electrical devices.  While today’s solar batteries aren’t particularly large, they can certainly keep the lights on and refrigerator running for the intervals of time when rolling blackouts might occur.

Meanwhile, for those wanting protection from longer-duration outages – or who want to move off the grid entirely – new game-changing options are on the way.  For example, new electric vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Hyundai Ioniq 5 feature much larger batteries and bidirectional charging that can be used to run home electrical appliances for days on end.  

Someday soon, batteries may figure into almost all home solar power installations.  The big remaining question is how many EV batteries will be configured with bidirectional charging to perform such double-duty.

Average day-ahead prices top $300 a megawatt-hour in Southern California

Spot prices for electricity in California quadrupled during the recent heat wave.

  1. Forces are converging to make more homeowners want to install solar power and get off the grid completely.   

True.  Electricity rates are rising in California, even as utilities are cutting back on what they pay for solar power sold into their systems through net metering.  (The same thing is happening here in New England.)  At the same time, grid reliability is suffering from a spike in climate-induced wildfires and heat waves.  Add in the need to replace aging transmission lines, some of which are nearly a century old, and it’s no wonder that more Californians want to cut the cord with their utilities entirely.      

Fortunately, help is on the way to address some of these transmission problems.  The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed into law last November includes $65 billion to fund grid modernization across the United States.  And, thanks to the just-passed Inflation Reduction Act, homeowners can now qualify for a 30% federal tax credit for solar installations.  This credit also applies to home battery installations – whether or not they are connected to solar power.

The bottom line is that going off the grid is becoming more viable and affordable across the United States.  RMI, a research organization formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute, has projected that by 2031 most California homeowners will save money by going off the grid and leaving their utility bills behind.  Moreover, RMI predicts that other regions of the country will join this trend, including the Northeast, as costs of decentralized solar power and utility-scale generation continue to diverge.  By 2031, the number of solar-powered, single-family homes could reach 14.1 million in America, up from 3.2 million homes today, creating a large pool of customers ready to move off the grid.

Process infographic describing how solar microgrids connect with a utility
Microgrids are a way to expand use of solar energy and make power delivery more reliable

  1. Microgrids may transform how we generate and share power in the future, making large blackouts a thing of the past.

True.  Nationwide, more than 70% of America’s transmission lines and large power transformers are at least 25 years old.  Over the next 20 years, utilities will need to spend an estimated $2.2 trillion on infrastructure upgrades just to keep these systems up and running.  While government funding will help bear these enormous costs, most of the burden will fall on traditional energy consumers.

This is not the only way forward, however.  Microgrids and newly conceived “micro utilities” can be employed to tap solar power and other distributed energy sources to build out decentralized grids that reduce the need for long transmission lines and massive amounts of land for utility-scale energy projects.  In their place, local distribution networks can be upgraded to ease transmission bottlenecks and inject more green energy into the grid to help address short-term energy shortages and long-term climate policy goals.  

With new cloud-based technology, consumer apps and energy-tracking software, even your home could become part of a solar microgrid sometime soon.  Over time, entire neighborhoods, business parks and whole communities may be able to operate independently from the grid – with solar power and other clean energy sources offering affordable, clean and dependable electricity that utilities just can’t match!

Solaflect Energy is your home energy management partner.  We help you install clean and affordable solar electricity and home battery systems for a more resilient and climate-friendly future.  For more information email us or call (802) 649-3700.

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