The Impending Heat

Aug 27

Say what you will about California. For better or worse, the Golden State seems to invent, or at least indulge, every cultural, environmental and sociopolitical trend before the rest of the nation. And, it was that same pioneering spirit that sustained California’s homes and offices through the near record-breaking heat wave of early July.

As temperatures soared passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the West coast seemed poised for disaster. In early June, Southern California Edison announced it would close the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which could once supply power to 1.4 million homes, on the back of leaking and equipment issues. Similarly, Diablo Canyon nuclear plant was forced to shut down one of its two reactors because of a leak in the backup cooling system. On top of all that, hydropower resources were paralyzed by low snowpacks, and the otherwise reliable Pacific breeze failed to drift inland. How did the lights keep shining? How did conditioned air continue to blow?

The answer is three fold. Planners and department heads teamed up to boost supply and curb demand with a clever combination of renewable energy, natural gas and conservation methods.The lofty ambition to make solar and wind energy account for one-third of the state’s electricity by 2020 drove regulators and energy companies to meet earlier this year and discuss solutions to potential instability on the power grid. This preemptive move ensured that renewable energy sources were in place when California needed them most. Secondly, more than 15,000 megawatts of new natural-gas-fired electricity generation units have been added since the rolling blackout/Enron debacle of 2000. The Moss Landing power plant on Monterey Bay is the shining example. It was refurbished and expanded with new higher-efficiency natural gas units in 2002 thereby surpassing both nuclear plants and certifying it as the largest electricity generations station in the Golden State.

"Without the thermal [natural gas] units supplying 10,000 megawatts more in the middle of the day than they did earlier in the day, the lights would have gone out," said Stanford Economics Professor Frank Wolak, "This is what thermal units are good at doing: meeting demand. They are dispatchable."

Additional help came from regular citizens and businesses. Customers complied with California utilities’ calls to adjust thermostats, close the drapes, opt for fans instead of A/C, and limit use of appliances to morning or evening amongst other steps.Also, corporations and local businesses opted to receive payments or reduced rates in exchange for rationing energy use.Most importantly, these basic and voluntary measures can be boiled down and repeated as a formula for sustainability.

"The flexibility and the adaptability of California's system really shone through," said Daniel Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. "It absorbed major hits and came out running beautifully."

The necessity for this kind of mass ingenuity cannot be overstressed in the face of global climate change. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that week-long heat wavesof increasing intensity will become the agonizing norm across the country. Consider the opposite coast of the continental United States. As far northeast as New England, the grid operator has urged citizens to conserve power as this summer’s demand for electricity skyrockets.

The renewable alternatives might not be ready to do most of the heavy lifting during peak demand hours, but in cases like an emergency heat wave, these sources can easily function as supplementary and/or as auxiliary, thereby getting the state over a power hump and often saving the day. For the sake of safety alone, one would think that more states would be clamoring to ape California’s three-pronged approach at beating the impending heat.

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