Californians urged to save energy amid brutal heatwave

By JOHN ANTCZAK and EUGENE GARCIA
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Californians suffocated by the lengthening heat wave in the West have been asked to reduce air conditioning and reduce electricity consumption again during critical hours on Friday and again on Saturday to avoid stress on the state power grid that could lead to power outages.

Saturday will be the fourth straight day of demands from the state electric grid operator for voluntary late afternoon and evening cutbacks to balance supply and demand as millions of residents endured triple digit temperatures.

The California independent system operator said several generators were taken out of service due to extreme heat, which tightened the power supply.

Electricity demand peaked at 47,357 megawatts on Thursday, the highest since September 2017. Cal ISO attributed the conservation and reduced commercial use to maintaining grid stability.

“The primary concern now is with even higher temperatures predicted for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with projected loads reaching over 49,000 megawatts on Tuesday,” Cal ISO said in a statement.

In August 2020, a record heat wave caused an increase in energy consumption for air conditioning which overloaded the network. This caused two consecutive nights of power outages, affecting hundreds of thousands of residential and commercial customers.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared an emergency to increase energy production and relaxed rules aimed at reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases. He highlighted the role that climate change was playing in the heat wave.

“September is off to a flying start in the West with record high temperatures and fires expected to spread and take hold in this part of the country this Labor Day weekend,” the National Weather Service said.

Author Stephanie Solomon, 33, brought her pet turtle along with a portable baby pool with a miniature umbrella to keep her cool while selling children’s books at the Huntington Beach Pier.

“It’s really hot here today. Well Penelope Joy is a desert tortoise so I think she’s the only one really enjoying this heat as hot as it is today,” Solomon said, as surfers and swimmers sought refuge in the ocean below.

Solomon said she was aware of the electrical situation and had her air conditioning turned off while she was away. But she planned to activate it over the phone when she got home to “make sure it’s nice and cool in there”.

That wasn’t an option for some when temperatures hit the 90s in Colorado on Tuesday. Around 22,000 Xcel Energy customers were unable to turn up their air conditioning after receiving messages that the thermostats were temporarily locked.

Customers had signed up for a program allowing the utility to adjust them to four degrees above the previous setting when electricity demand is high, the company said.

Usually customers can choose to undo the adjustments, but the company said this was not allowed due to an emergency due to an unexpected loss of power and heat generation.

One customer, Christopher Empson, said his thermostat was locked at 81 degrees (27.2 degrees Celsius). He said he had no recollection of signing up for the program and wished there was more communication about what the company had the power to do.

“I was kind of caught off guard,” he said, and “there are people who, if their thermostat locks up, it could be life or death.”

California’s “Flex Alerts” urge conservation between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., the times when solar power generation declines. The grid operator is urging people to use major appliances, charge electric cars and cool their homes earlier in the day, then crank up thermostats to 78 degrees (25.5 degrees Celsius) or higher.

“The No. 1 most effective conservation measure is to set thermostats at 78 or higher” because air conditioners are the biggest consumers of electricity in the summer, said Anne Gonzales, spokeswoman for the network operator, in an email.

“We’ve traditionally asked for 78 degrees because it has a good effect on our demand and is still comfortable for consumers to easily participate in,” she said. “We always ask consumers to set it higher, if they can and health permits.”

Keeping temperatures too low can make air conditioners run all the time, added Jay Apt, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering.

“If you set this pup too low, he’s going to run around all the time,” Apt said. “It’s going to do two things, the first is that it’s going to use a huge amount of energy and the second is that it’s not going to give any recovery time.”

The goal is to allow units to cycle on and off, Apt said, and 78 degrees is a rough estimate of the sweet spot that can vary depending on a building’s insulation.

In California, customers of Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility, can volunteer to let the company control their internet-connected thermostats during heat waves. The program automatically adjusts the thermostat’s schedule so that it uses less energy during peak periods.

Customers can get $75 for their participation and can opt out by simply changing their thermostat to a different temperature. The company does not lock thermostats, said PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen.

California cities and counties, meanwhile, were opening cooling centers.

“We’ve opened cooling centers in the past, but this heat wave seems to be the real thing,” said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, health officer for Contra Costa County east of San Francisco.

Some of the cooling centers will be specifically for homeless people, and an outreach team will also be on site to distribute water to homeless people and inform them of available resources, Tzvieli said.

Officials also said the heat will worsen the effects of smog. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued an alert for unhealthy levels of ozone pollution, especially for children, the elderly and people with respiratory and heart conditions.

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Garcia reported from Huntington Beach. Associated Press reporters Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, Adam Beam and Don Thompson in Sacramento, and Colleen Slevin and Jesse Bedayn in Denver contributed to this report.