First they struck California, then Texas. Now blackouts are threatening the entire U.S. West as nearly a dozen states head into summer with too little electricity.
From New Mexico to Washington, power grids are being strained by forces years in the making — some of them fueled by climate change, others by the fight against it. If a heat wave strikes the whole region at once, the rolling outages that darkened Southern California and Silicon Valley last August will have been previews, not flukes.
“It’s really the same case in different parts of the West,” said Elliot Mainzer, chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator, which runs most of the state’s grid. “It’s revealed competition for scarce resources that we haven’t seen for some time.”
The specter of blackouts highlights a paradox of the clean-energy transition: Extreme weather fueled by climate change is exposing cracks in society’s move away from fossil fuels, even as that shift is supposed to rein in the worst of global warming.
EDITOR’S NOTE – There’s no scientific evidence that weather is more extreme now than in the past, or that weather variations are due to global warming.
States shuttering coal and gas-fired power plants simply aren’t replacing them fast enough to keep pace with the vagaries of an unstable climate, and the region’s existing power infrastructure is woefully vulnerable to wildfires (which threaten transmission lines), drought (which saps once-abundant hydropower resources) and heat waves (which play havoc with demand).
EDITOR’S NOTE – California would have fewer wildfires if they did proper forest maintenance, taking out downed wood and performing controlled burns.
On Wednesday, California’s grid managers warned that while they’re better positioned than last summer, the risk of power shortages during extreme heat remains a clear possibility. Wildfires, already getting started after a dry winter, could compound the danger if they threaten transmission lines.
“We are headed to yet another very dangerous fire year,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a briefing Thursday. “We’re seeing a higher level of risk and an earlier level risk.” For many, California’s power crisis in 2020 was the first indication of how serious the regional power shortfall had become.
While the blackouts highlighted the state’s reliance on solar power — a resource that ebbs in the evening just as demand picks up — an equally significant problem was California’s dependence on imported electricity. Utilities routinely source power supplies from out of state, drawing electricity across high-voltage transmission lines to wherever it’s needed.
But last summer, neighboring states coping with the same heat wave as California were straining to keep their own lights on, and imports were hard to come by.