Scorching heat and historic drought threaten California’s electric grid, showing need for more rooftop solar

Dire impacts show folly of utilities’ call for regulators to crush residential solar, with decision expected soon

SAN FRANCISCO – Temperatures are soaring in much of central California – above 100 degrees in places – and the resulting higher demand on the electricity grid could cause blackouts.

More clean solar power could help avoid this outcome.

The scorching heat wave could continue at least until Friday, according to the National Weather Service. To reduce the risk of blackouts, the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, which manages the state’s power supply, is urging utilities to suspend any maintenance projects between noon and 10 p.m. every day until temperatures drop.

Central California’s forecasted electricity demand on Monday was 42,883 megawatts, or MW, and was above 45,000 MW midweek, Bloomberg News reports.

On August 14, 2020, demand on the grid peaked at 45,716 MW, forcing CAISO to set up rolling blackouts it said were due to “high heat and increased electricity demand.”

But the main reason for those blackouts was CAISO’s mismanagement of the grid. It exported much-needed electricity out of the state. State regulators also failed to maintain and expand demand response programs that can reduce electricity usage, and power plants were suspiciously offline at a time of higher need.

Power supply problems are cropping up during the latest heat wave, since it limits some types of energy production. The current problems also highlight the need to expand clean, renewable power. 

The crippling drought now hitting California and the rest of the Southwest, driven by the climate crisis, has left Lake Mead and Lake Powell – both located in other hot, dry states – at historically low levels. The lakes could soon be given “dead pool status,” meaning there’s not enough water at nearby dams to generate hydroelectricity, as the United Nations Environment Programme notes.

For example, the water elevation of Lake Mead should be at 1,220 feet, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. But it’s now at 1,040 feet. Water levels must be above 1,000 feet for the Hoover Dam, which forms the lake, to produce normal levels of hydropower.

Under normal circumstances, the Hoover Dam can produce 2,080 MW of hydropower – enough to provide roughly 1.3 million people with electricity in a single year. But hydropower production at the Hoover Dam has plummeted by almost half, to 1,076 MW.

California could avoid this chaos with more distributed generation and battery storage, including from rooftop solar on homes and small businesses, paired with storage, that does not impose additional and potentially dangerous stress to the state’s electricity grid.

But the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, could within weeks approve a utility plan to decimate the state’s popular rooftop solar program.

Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric want the CPUC to impose a hefty monthly tax on rooftop solar customers, and strip financial incentives that make installing panels and batteries affordable to working-class homes. The goal is to sideline the only serious competition the big investor-owned utilities face when it comes to electricity generation and distribution: customer-owned rooftop solar and storage.  

“The crippling heat waves and historic droughts are here to stay,” said EWG President and Bay Area resident Ken Cook. “These colliding crises should be more than enough reason for state regulators and Gov. Newsom to use every tool at their disposal to ease pressure on the grid.”

“California needs to provide residents with safe, affordable and abundant sources of electricity,” Cook said. “And it can start by rejecting the plot by PG&E and the other power companies to crush the state’s rooftop solar program.”

There are now more than 1.3 million homes and small businesses in the state with rooftop solar. But experts say if the utility-backed proposal is adopted, solar panels will be financially out of reach for millions of families. That will dramatically slow progress to reduce greenhouse gases, exacerbating the climate crisis, and stressing the grid further.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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