In Future LA, Summerlong Heatwaves Could Be The New Normal

The sun sets behind power lines and poles in Rosemead, California, on July 9, 2018. Tens of thousands of people lost power during the heatwave. Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images

Scientists predict that with climate change, we'll be seeing more extreme heat, wildfires, and sea level rise. And that's going to stress out our electricity grid — and cause more power outages — unless we're better prepared. Here's a bunch of ways global warming is going to affect our power.

EXTREME HEAT

Let's start with temperature. If we don't radically cut the amount of greenhouse gases we're pumping out, it's gonna get hot.

Real hot.

"A big take home message for Los Angeles is that toward the end of the century, the whole summer may well become a heatwave," said Norman Miller, an emeritus professor of climate science at UC Berkeley, who wrote a 2008 paper on climate change, extreme heat and electricity use in California.

In fact, it's already started: Angelenos already experience almost twice as many extremely hot days now as we did in the 1970s.

REACHING PEAK "PEAK"

Extreme heat is very closely related to electricity usage — the hotter it is, the more power we use.

Power demand in California on July 6, 2018 peaked around 6 p.m. Demand in Los Angeles set a new record for a July day, according to LADWP. Many temperature records were also broken. Chart courtesy CALISO.

"During heat waves, when people are uncomfortable with the ambient temperature, they come home at 5 p.m., they all switch on their AC to cool down the house. The electric grid receives a peak demand during those hours, and as a result the power grid is stressed," Miller said.

Those periods of "peak demand" on the power grid are going to become even more common in the future, according to a 2017 paper by researchers at Berkeley and Stanford.

That means we'll see more days where the power grid is stressed.

It's a nationwide problem, but it's worst in California and the Southwest. Here, the amount of electricity used on the hottest days is expected to increase more than other regions of the country.

In other words, California's "peak demand" periods are going to get "peakier."

TRANSFORMERS, MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE (h/t kevolution!)

Extreme heat doesn't just drive up electricity usage. It actually makes it harder to supply electricity. So it's doubly bad.

When it's really hot out, natural gas-fired power plants don't work as well. And neither do substations and transformers.

They do a crucial job — they step down electricity voltage from the high voltage needed to send power over long distances to a safer, lower voltage for homes and businesses. But when they're hot — and old, as many of them are — they fail more often. (Case in point: this weekend, when round-the-clock heat caused equipment to break).

And if that's not bad enough, heat also means power lines can't carry as much power!

To overcome all these problems, California's grid is going to need to supply nearly 40% more power on extremely hot days, just to meet demand, according to the California Energy Commission.

PG&E employees repair burned power lines after the Rocky fire went through near Clear Lake, California on August 1, 2015. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

AND THEN THERE ARE THE WILDFIRES

So that's heat. But climate change will affect our power grid in other ways: it causes wildfires to burn more frequently and more severely.

And fires can threaten high-voltage power lines — in fact, the Energy Commission estimates some major transmission lines will be 40 percent more likely to be damaged by wildfire by the end of the century than they are now.

But climate change doesn't just exacerbate wildfires, which can damage power lines. It can also help create the conditions that cause power lines to start wildfires.

High wind and extreme heat can cause transmission lines to arc, throwing sparks onto the ground. This is what caused at least two of the deadly Wine Country wildfires last fall.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S ALSO SEA LEVEL RISE

There will be coastal flooding. Rising sea levels and more severe winter storms could inundate as many as 25 power plants that are built close to the ocean, according to the Energy Commission, as well as substations and natural gas infrastructure.

The El Segundo Power Plant is reflected in the Pacific Ocean after sunset on November 29, 2006 in El Segundo, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

SO, WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

There are two main approaches:

  • try to slow down climate change
  • try to adapt

California has an ambitious goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions so much that by 2030, they're 40 percent below what they were in 1990.

We have a myriad of policies in place to get us there, including incentives for electric cars, regulations on big emitters like power plants and the agriculture industry, and switching to more renewable energy.

However, the Trump Administration appears to have little interest in mitigating climate change. The President pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, abandoned the Clean Power Plan (which would've cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants), and has appointed climate deniers to head the Environmental Protection Agency, among other things.

So a more pragmatic choice may be to focus on adaptation, at least in the short term.

MAKING LA COOLER

Last year, LA mayor Eric Garcetti set a goal of lowering the city's temperature by three degrees by 2035.

The plan is to slowly replace roofs with less heat-absorbing materials, repave or repaint city streets with white or reflective paint, and plant a lot more trees.

This will affect power usage because, as you may recall, lower temperatures mean less electricity is used.

ALL THE CODES

Every three years, the California Energy Commission passes new statewide building codes that require new homes to be increasingly energy-efficient.

In May, the commission adopted its latest version, which will slash use of natural gas, require more efficient lighting, more insulation and better windows.

All total, the new codes will make new homes nearly 50% more energy efficient than those built under the existing code, according to Laura Wisland, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In Los Angeles, Garcetti has a goal of slashing energy use in buildings by 30 percent by 2035 by paying people to replace old appliances and better tracking energy use, among other things.

UP ON A ROOF

Another way to rely less on the electric grid? Put more solar panels on roofs, and combine them with batteries, which can store the power for homeowners to use later, when the sun goes down. That way if power gets knocked out due to a wildfire or extreme heat, there is a backup.

California already has more gigawatts of solar installed than any other state — and LA has more than any other city. But the new building codes go even further: they require all new homes built after 2020 to have solar panels. And there are incentives for contractors to put batteries in homes, too.

Los Angeles leads the state in power generated by rooftop solar installations. Chart courtesy California Solar Statistics.

OTHER FORTIFYING EFFORTS

It's pretty difficult to prevent wildfires during extreme heat and drought conditions, but California is trying.

The US Forest Service and Governor Brown are working to make forests healthier and less likely to burn by cutting down dead trees and thinning out forests that are too dense.

Utilities are also trying to make their power lines less likely to cause fires by shunting power away from lines during times when fires might break out, like when it's really hot or windy.

And lastly, utilities can also build sea walls or dikes around coastal power plants to protect them from rising seas.

Editor's note: A version of this story aired on KPCC. Listen to it here.


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