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California's record heat wave put so much stress on the power grid it nearly broke


It has been really hot. High demand caused by a historic heat wave nearly broke the power grid here in California yesterday. So far, it does seem like a lot of Californians are trying to decrease their energy use, and that has helped the state avert rolling blackouts. But the heat is expected to continue for a few more days. Here to explain more about what's ahead is Jan Smutny-Jones. He's the executive director of the trade group Independent Energy Producers, and he's a former chair of the state's power grid system. Welcome.

JAN SMUTNY-JONES: Thank you very much.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK, so first of all, I mean, none of us here in California are new to extreme heat, but it's not every day that we get an emergency warning on our cellphones talking about strain on the power grid. Can you just explain how the state even gets to that high level of stress? Is it just high demand?

SMUTNY-JONES: It's high demand. You know, we have a heat wave, a multiday heat wave. And so what it did yesterday was it pushed the all-time peak to a little over 51,000 megawatts. The previous record was set in 2006 at 50,000.

CHANG: Wow. And just how precarious did it get yesterday? Like, do you know how close we got to rolling blackouts?

SMUTNY-JONES: Very close. The system went into what they call an Energy Emergency Alert 3, which basically meant that the Cal ISO was instructing the utilities and other entities connected to it that they may progress with rolling blackouts. And what those are is they would basically shut off a portion of a community, say, for one hour or so, and then, they would roll it over to the next area. But that is something we only do in emergencies. And unfortunately, I'd like to say that that was it, and we're done. But it's - this is going to be a weeklong heat wave, so we have to remain vigilant throughout the week.

CHANG: So what I want to understand, Jan, is if we know that demand for power gets very, very high during heat waves and we know that heat waves are getting worse and more frequent, why hasn't the power grid been able to catch up with the demand? Like, can you just explain how hard, how complicated that would be?

SMUTNY-JONES: Well, it's complicated because we're also in the middle of a transition. So we are moving from a system that had a significant amount of coal at one time - and natural gas - to a system that is more reliant on solar and wind. So yesterday, we had - natural gas fleet was operating throughout the day. Middle of the day, we had very good solar resources.

CHANG: Sure. We got plenty of sun here.

SMUTNY-JONES: We have plenty of sun. That's it.

CHANG: But hydropower - I mean, we've got drought conditions. So I imagine hydropower is a real struggle here.

SMUTNY-JONES: So this is one of the climate change impacts that we have to adapt to. We are in the middle of a multiyear drought, which limits the amount of hydroelectricity we can use. You know, the system is evolving, but it is very tight.

CHANG: Let me ask you this. There were a lot of pleas from the government to individuals. You know, just ramp down your energy use, and that way we can avoid rolling blackouts. What about industries and how they rely on power? What can they do?

SMUTNY-JONES: They do quite a bit. There are demand response programs for industry that turn down and sometimes interrupt whatever manufacturing they may have going on. Or they may kick in backstop generation. Normally, no one wants to run those things. Those can be diesel backup. Then, I do want to underscore the importance of a lot of people doing small things...

CHANG: Yeah.

SMUTNY-JONES: ...Making a big difference. You know, there are some simple things that people can do. Precool your house. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, turn the thermostat up to 78. Then, it'll be comfortable for, you know, 3 to 4 hours.

CHANG: I have mine at 79. I just have to be...

SMUTNY-JONES: Well, there you go.

CHANG: ...An overachiever sometimes, I guess (laughter).

SMUTNY-JONES: You're an overachiever. And then, be sure not to wash your clothes between 4 and 8. Those are little things that, believe it or not, when you have 40 million people living in the state...

CHANG: Make a difference.

SMUTNY-JONES: ...That makes a difference.

CHANG: Jan Smutny-Jones is executive director of the trade group Independent Energy Producers. Thanks very much for joining us.

SMUTNY-JONES: Well, thanks for having me. And...

CHANG: ...Stay cool.

SMUTNY-JONES: ...Everybody stay cool.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SMUTNY-JONES: There you go. Thank you.

CHANG: Take care.

SMUTNY-JONES: Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.