Millions of Californians back in the dark

SAN FRANCISCO • First, it was the prospect of wildfires that took down large swaths of California’s power grid. Now, it’s the worst heatwave in 70 years.

Climate change is contributing to increasingly extreme weather in California. Less than a year ago, millions of people were plunged into darkness in an effort to keep power lines from sparking catastrophic wildfires. This time, dangerously high temperatures are taxing the system, bringing about the state’s first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis.

What’s more, they’re hitting just as the pandemic has trapped people indoors in a state that has recorded more Covid-19 infections than any other place, leaving the powerless with a difficult choice between enduring the heat indoors and seeking relief elsewhere. It’s the latest collision of wild weather and the pandemic simultaneously wreaking havoc upon the world.

Last week, Tropical Storm Isaias left millions across the eastern US without power for days, forcing remote workers into coffee shops and crowded parking lots to access Internet.

For Californians, Saturday was the second night in a row that grid operator California Independent System Operator (ISO) made the rare call to shut off power. An estimated 352,500 customers went dark — or roughly one million people based on the average size of a household. A day earlier, about two million people lost service over the course of four hours.

Extreme weather fuelled in part by climate change has taken a profound toll on electrical grids in recent weeks. Just days ago, millions of people lost power across the US Midwest after a wall of lightning, hail and deadly winds tore a path of ruin from central Iowa to Chicago. Before that, Tropical Storm Isaias darkened homes from the Carolinas to Connecticut.

For California, the problem is heat. An unrelenting high-pressure system is pushing temperatures upward, leaving the region facing what’s expected to be its hottest two weeks in 70 years. That’s driving up power demand to extreme levels, making it harder for generating plants to keep pace.

The rotating blackouts on Saturday took Californians especially by surprise. Less than an hour before ordering outages, the grid manager had said that blackouts wouldn’t be necessary. Then a 470MW power plant went down, along with 1,000MW of wind power, and it

became clear the system couldn’t meet demand, said Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the ISO.

Mandy Feuerbacher, an immigration attorney in Los Gatos, saw her lights go out without warning last Friday evening. Her two-year-old twins were up until 2am crying from the heat. She and her husband moved their beds into the downstairs kitchen, hoping it would be cool enough in there for them to sleep.

“The babies were so hot. They were freaking out. We were really worried about our food spoiling,” Feuerbacher said. “It was terrible.” — Bloomberg