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California braces for power outages amid 'extraordinary heat event'

John Bacon
USA TODAY
  • If conditions worsen, utilities will determine how to rotate the outages.
  • The extreme heat that broiled the drought-ravaged state over the Labor Day weekend will continue for much of the week.
  • The vast area of high pressure sitting over the interior West is likely to weaken late this week.

Record-breaking temperatures were forecast to drive historic power demands in California on Tuesday, straining the electrical grid and making rotating outages increasingly likely, authorities said.

Elliot Mainzer, CEO of the California Independent System Operator, said the "extraordinary heat event we are experiencing" makes it essential that homes and businesses reduce energy use after 4 p.m. That means not using major appliances and setting thermostats at 78 degrees or higher.

The system's site estimated peak demand at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday would reach 51,000 megawatts, almost 4,000 above capacity.

“Over the last several days we have seen a positive impact on lowering demand because of everyone’s help," he said. "But now we need a reduction in energy use that is two or three times greater than what we’ve seen so far.”

The system declared an emergency Monday from  5 to 9 p.m. A "Flex Alert" urging consumers to reduce their power use in the late afternoon and evening remained in effect Tuesday, marking seven consecutive days the call to cut demand has been issued. 

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Michael Williams cools off with a popsicle and a bag of ice as the temperature in Santa Rosa, Calif., pushes 112 degrees on Sept. 5, 2022.

How would rotating outages work?

If conditions worsen, utilities will determine how to rotate the outages. The goal: keeping them as short as possible. Mainzer said that for two days in August 2020, outages affecting about 800,000 homes and businesses lasted anywhere from 15 minutes to about 2½ hours – the first time outages were ordered in California because of insufficient supplies in nearly 20 years.

“We never want to get to that point, of course,” Mainzer said. “We want everyone to be prepared."

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How California gets its power

California’s energy grid involves mostly solar and natural gas during the day, along with some imports of power from other states. But solar power begins to fall off late in the day, the hottest time in some parts of the state. Some of the aging natural gas plants California relies on for backup power struggle in hot weather.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation last week allowing the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the state’s last nuclear plant, to stay open an additional five years beyond its planned 2025 closure.

Weather fueling wildfires

Wildfire danger was extreme as the blazing hot, dry weather turned brush to tinder. Four deaths were reported over the Labor Day weekend as more than 4,000 firefighters battled fires across the state, –  45 new blazes on Sunday alone, said Anale Burlew, a deputy chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Historic heat wave sweeps West

The extreme heat that broiled the drought-ravaged state over the Labor Day weekend will continue for much of the week while also having a similar effect on states east of California, forecasters said. More than 100 records for daily high temperatures could be broken between Sunday and Wednesday, the National Weather Service said. Close to 50 million people across at least nine states in the West face sweltering conditions through the middle of the week, AccuWeather reported.

EVEN MORE EXTREME': Blistering heat to roast California, other Western states this week

Death Valley may have set global record 

The nation’s hottest spot, Death Valley, California, was forecast to hit 125 degrees Tuesday, continuing an unprecedented run of blistering heat. AccuWeather reports that video from last week showed the Furnace Creek thermometer at Death Valley National Park reached 127 degrees. If confirmed, it would be the highest temperature ever recorded in September on Earth.

Elsewhere in California, Sacramento recorded 117 degrees at Sacramento International Airport on Monday, breaking the all-time high temperature of 115 F, which was set in 1961. Sacramento, which had not climbed above 109 degrees in any previous September, is expected to top 110 all but one day through Saturday. Fresno in the Central Valley figures to surge past its September record of 111.

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When will a reprieve come?

AccuWeather reports that the vast area of high pressure sitting over the interior West is likely to weaken late this week. That could allow cooler air to slide down from Canada, through the Northwestern states and into the Rockies.

The cooling effect in Southern California, southern Nevada and Arizona will be aided by increasing cloud cover associated in part from Hurricane Kay at sea now off the coast of Mexico, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.

Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz

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