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California’s heat wave sheds light on major grid issues

The high temps may have subsided, but the problems they brought to the forefront remain

Californians are breathing a sigh of relief, although they might be mopping sweat off their foreheads while they’re doing it. It looks like the Golden State may get through the summer without serious rolling blackouts. Although the hot days are far from over, concerns about the state’s power grid being unable to keep up with demand were greatest over Labor Day weekend earlier this month. A worst-case scenario was avoided, but only with many people voluntarily conserving energy to keep the demand from exceeding what the grid could bear – and the problem isn’t going away any time soon.

Power disruptions in California haven’t made many national headlines since the electricity crisis that sparked political turmoil and played a major part in the eventual recall of Governor Gray Davis in the early 2000’s. In recent years, however, fears of major outages have returned. In August of 2020, hundreds of thousands of Californians lost power during a rolling blackout in the midst of a heat wave.

Earlier this month, all of the elements were in place for another serious disruption, with temperatures surpassing 110 degrees in some parts of the state. The state’s biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, reported that they had warned 525,000 customers that they could lose power on the evening of Tuesday, September 6. The state broke a 15-year-old record for power consumption that day, with electricity use reaching 52 gigawatts. Emergency alerts were issued via text messages, all but begging customers to conserve power by turning off appliances and (in spite of the heat) moderating their use of air conditioning. Data shows that Californians responded strongly to the appeal, driving demand down enough to avoid the large-scale blackouts that would have occurred if the grid had been pushed past its limits – although USA Today reported that some Northern California residents did briefly lose power simply due to a communication error between utilities and the grid operating authorities.

Unfortunately, there’s little reason to be optimistic that California will be able to avoid similar crises in the future. Officials had warned back in May that factors like extreme heat would put the reliability of the state’s electrical grid in question for at least the next five summers. Effects of climate change like drought will strain the grid by compromising hydroelectric energy production. The rising popularity of electric vehicles is a positive for the environment in the longer term, but its immediate effect will be to increase demand for electricity, further pressuring the already-buckling grid. Parts of the existing grid infrastructure are also outdated and in need of repair or replacement; the effects of the 2022 heat wave were worsened by several fossil fuel power plants breaking down right when they were needed most.

The reality is that everyday Californians will almost certainly be asked to keep sacrificing to prevent outages – and despite the admirable civic-minded response from Californians to the appeals to limit their energy usage, there is no mechanism for compensating those who conserve. “Time of use” billing structures charge customers more for using energy during times of peak demand, which effectively gives utilities the power to punish customers for using energy, but customers who conscientiously limit their usage receive no reward. Reducing demand prevents the worst-case scenario of a widespread outage, but this is a bit like saying that avoiding starvation is a reward for being forced to ration food. Monopoly utilities are paid to provide energy and customers expect power to be there when it’s needed, but the utilities have proven that they can’t deliver.

With all of these facts taken into consideration, it’s clear that California’s brewing energy crisis is probably going to get worse before it gets better. There’s only one way for Californians to protect themselves from the risk of inconvenient (and possibly dangerous) utility outages, or from being asked to sacrifice to make up for the inadequacies of the utilities: gaining greater energy independence through solar, home battery, and other renewable technologies.

Residential solar allows homeowners to produce their own energy, and when paired with home batteries, enables them to use it when they need it – including during grid outages. The freedom and flexibility of solar+storage frees you from having to worry about being charged more during peak demand periods, and from having to sacrifice your family’s comfort when utilities ask customers to conserve. When outages do occur, the ability to produce your own power and tap into stored power means you can get through the blackout with less disruption.

Solar and battery storage provide more than just comfort and peace of mind. Going solar gives you the financial reward for reducing grid demand that the utilities won’t. Homeowners who go solar usually start seeing lower bills immediately. The typical residential solar system in California pays for itself in well under 10 years – meaning that savings from the rest of the system’s warrantied lifespan (typically 25 years) become a profitable investment.

But in a larger sense, the true long-term reward from going solar is being part of the solution. The circumstances that have put California on the brink of an energy crisis – rising energy consumption and climate change – can ultimately only be addressed by transitioning to more sustainable sources of energy. Going solar is quite possibly the biggest step that a single family or individual can take to build a more sustainable future. It’s not just working toward a tomorrow where you and your neighbors don’t need to worry about heat waves and blackouts – it’s doing your part for the entire planet.

Our team at Zenernet would love to have the chance to help you gain greater energy independence and put worries about outages to rest while getting the satisfaction of knowing you’re having a positive environmental impact. Schedule a no-pressure consultation with one of our energy experts today if you’d like to know more – and if you haven’t already, follow Zenernet on social media to keep up with all our coverage of energy issues and policy in California and around the country.

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