Calif. Gas Power Retirements Evident in Heat Wave

Calif. Gas Power Retirements Evident in Heat Wave
More than 7 gigawatts of gas generation, enough to power 5.3 million homes, has been retired over the past five years.

(Bloomberg) -- One of the most extreme heat waves in generations is smothering California this week and pushing the region’s power grid to the brink of collapse.

In the past 72 hours, the state has instituted the first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis to protect a system strained by a crush of demand for air conditioning. The region’s electricity system operator has warned of more rotating outages through Wednesday with temperatures forecast to reach as high as 112 degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celsius) in some parts of the state.

Part of the problem is California’s rapid shift away from natural gas. More than 7 gigawatts of gas generation, enough to power 5.3 million homes, has been retired over the past five years as the state turns increasingly to renewables, according to BloombergNEF. That leaves fewer options when the sun sets and solar production wanes.

Normally, California can import enough power from neighboring states when supplies are tight. But the sprawling heat wave blanketing the U.S. West is pushing power plants to the hilt across the region.

“California is in a tight spot,” BNEF analyst Brian Bartholomew said. “It’s retired a lot of gas. And the storage that’s supposed to help hasn’t yet come online.”

Per the climate data in xmACIS2, this is the first time since 1913 that Death Valley has reached 130F. In July 2013, it last reached 129F. If valid, it would be the hottest August temperature at the site by 3F. @NWSVegas

— NWS WPC (@NWSWPC) August 16, 2020

By 8 a.m. local time it was already 83 degrees in Sacramento. With temperatures climbing, demand for power in the state is expected to reach more than 49,700 megawatts Monday afternoon, just shy of the all-time record set in 2006.

Since Friday, millions of Californians have been abruptly plunged into darkness with little notice as utilities work to keep the state’s grid from collapsing. With Covid-19 still spreading, the powerless have faced a difficult choice between enduring the heat at home and seeking relief elsewhere in a state that’s reported more infections than any other. These blackouts are hitting less than a year after California’s utilities deliberately cut power to millions to keep their electrical lines from sparking fires during unusually strong windstorms -- all extreme weather events made more frequent by climate change.

The relentless heat is starting to take a physical toll on California’s power system. Transformers -- the metal cylinders sitting atop power poles -- can malfunction and catch fire if they don’t cool off at night. And temperatures in some parts of Southern California are expected to remain in the low 80’s overnight. During a deadly, 10-day heatwave in 2006, the state’s utilities lost more than 1,500 of these devices, with each knocking out service to one neighborhood in the process.

The heat wave gripping the West Coast stems from a stubborn, high-pressure system that has parked itself across the Great Basin spanning Nevada and other western states. It essentially acts as a lid trapping hot air, and there aren’t any indications it’s going to budge soon.

Such phenomenons, sometimes called heat domes, are getting worse because the Earth’s climate is changing. As the planet warms, the contrast between the heat at the equator and the cold at the pole decreases. That saps the strength of the jet stream, which otherwise would be able to shove the ridges out of the way. It explains in part why extreme heat has blanketed regions around the world in recent weeks.

Extreme weather has taken a profound toll on electrical grids in recent weeks. Earlier this month, millions of people lost power across the U.S. Midwest after a wall of lightning, hail and deadly winds tore a path of ruin from central Iowa to Chicago. Days earlier, Tropical Storm Isaias darkened millions of homes from the Carolinas to Connecticut.

Soaring temperatures have already shattered records across California. According to the National Weather Service, Los Angeles International Airport hit a daily record of 93 degrees, breaking a previous high of 85 set in 1994. Death Valley reached 130 degrees for the first time since 1913. If validated, the weather service said, it will go down as the hottest August temperature there ever.


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