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Climate and Environment

Summer Heat Is Coming. Is Our Power Grid Better Prepared This Time To Avoid Blackouts?

Power lines are backlit by a break sun
Power use in California is commonly affected by strong heat waves during summer.
(Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images)
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State officials said the power grid is more prepared than last year to keep the air conditioning running and lights on during summer heat. They say power outages this summer are unlikely because there are dramatically improved hydropower conditions and an increase of battery storage for solar power, as well as new solar resources being brought online.

But extreme weather driven by the climate crisis, such as wildfires and prolonged heat waves, could still overwhelm the grid, officials said. Scientists expect temperatures this summer could reach some of their highest yet.

“We could still be in emergency mode, but we still, nonetheless, are better off this year than we were in previous years,” Mark Rothleder, the Chief Operating Officer at the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), the agency that runs the grid, told LAist.

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In recent years, the state has also boosted emergency energy reserves by purchasing diesel-powered generators and extending the life of some gas-fired power plants, as well as a nuclear plant that was scheduled to retire. But powering up fossil fuel sources during evening hours, when demand is high and solar and wind power is waning, worsens local air pollution and adds to the carbon pollution worsening extreme heat in the first place.

Drought hindering hydropower generation has forced California to rely more heavily on fossil fuel sources in recent years.

Ensuring clean energy supports those emergency moments in the longer-term will require building out energy sources and distribution lines at unprecedented rates.

Most dangerous conditions to come

The most dangerous heat and wildfire conditions usually arrive in California August through September, but the climate crisis is expanding the typical heat season (why I’m personally very much enjoying this May Gray we’re having).

A largely red map of the US showing increased summer heating.
Summer temperatures across the nation have increased due to human-caused climate change.
(Courtesy of Climate Central)

Last September, a record 10-day heat wave led to an all-time high in electricity demand. Planned, rolling blackouts were narrowly avoided thanks to the public’s response to a flex alert, as well as improved battery storage on the grid, among other things, including turning to those fossil fuel-powered reserves. In 2020, rolling blackouts were initiated due to wildfires and widespread heat waves.

It's not just planned blackouts, unplanned outages are also rising
  • Last summer a planned, rolling outage was avoided, but unplanned power outages are also on the rise. Compared to more affluent and white neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods primarily home to communities of color experience more frequent power outages – as well as power shutoffs for not being able to pay rising bills L.A. recently voted to end that practice in extreme weather, but details for the policy have yet to be settled. 

  • “In preparation for the extreme heat and wildfire season, we must establish strong thresholds for shutoff protections and heat relief,” said Agustin Cabrera, policy director with South L.A.-based group Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, or SCOPE-LA, during a press conference announcing the city’s heat preparations

  • Unplanned outages can result from damaged or poorly maintained power lines, as well as the urban heat island exacerbating stress on power lines. The legacy of racist housing laws have led to low-income communities of color living in some of the most paved-over areas with the least tree canopy and green space, making vulnerability to these issues more extreme. 

How to prepare for extreme heat

Depending on where you live, there are some rebates available for air conditioning units and backup power generators. But first, make sure your current air conditioning is in working order and make sure the filters are clean so it can run efficiently.

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Staying safe in the heat
    • Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink water or electrolyte-replacements
    • Drink cool water, not extremely cold water (which can cause cramps)
    • Avoid sweetened drinks, caffeine, and alcohol
  • Protect a pet from excessive heat

    • Never leave a pet or animal in a garage
    • Never leave a pet or animal in a vehicle
    • Never leave a pet or animal in the sun
    • Provide shade
    • Provide clean drinking water
  • Protect a human from excessive heat

  • Check in frequently with family, friends, and neighbors. Offer assistance or rides to those who are sick or have limited access to transportation. And give extra attention to people most at risk, including:

    • Elderly people (65 years and older)
    • Infants
    • Young children
    • People with chronic medical conditions
    • People with mental illness
    • People taking certain medications (i.e.: "If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask how much you should drink while the weather is hot," says the CDC)
Tips to stay cool
    • Kiddie pool
    • Lotions in the fridge
    • Eat spicy foods in the basement (or on the floor) while wearing a damp shirt and listening to the rain setting on your white noise machine
    • Make sure ceiling fans are running counterclockwise
    • Wet paper towels. Fold into ankle and wrist cuffs. Freeze. Wear. Repeat.
    • Build a DIY AC
    • Build a mini cold air fan
    • Build an "evaporative cooler for immediate heat relief"
    • Make a barricade of fans and ice cubes
    • Go to an air-conditioned store and browse for as long as possible (Target is a good option for this).
    • Close all the curtains, preferably the heat-absorbing kind
    • Or open all the windows, depending on the breeze situation
    • Cool bath or shower twice a day
    • Wash your sheets before bed but don't dry them — put them on your bed damp (provided you're dealing with a dry heat)
    • Portable A/C unit

How to prepare for wildfire

Read our comprehensive guide on how to prepare for wildfires.

Climate Emergency Questions
Fires. Mudslides. Heat waves. What questions do you need answered as you prepare for the effects of the climate emergency?

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