A phone alert may have prevented blackouts during California heatwave

·3-min read
A phone alert may have prevented blackouts during California heatwave

When the record-breaking heat hit California this week, so did fears of power outages.

As people switched on their air conditioners to stay cool, the state’s electrical grid operator warned that electricity demand could exceed supply, which could force officials to instate “rolling blackouts” to save energy in an emergency.

But California made it through Tuesday without planned blackouts — likely due to a well-timed phone alert that encouraged residents to immediately conserve electricity.

The heat on Tuesday in much of the state was absolutely brutal. High temperatures in Sacramento reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius), for example, an all-time record for the city.

Electricity demands also reached record highs as air conditioners tried to keep pace with those extremes.

In anticipation of those energy demands, the state grid operator, California ISO (CAISO), issued a “Flex Alert”, which calls on people to voluntarily reduce electricity by turning up thermostats, turning off lights and refraining from using major appliances or charging electric vehicles.

By the late afternoon — when electricity needs usually hit their peak demand and energy supply from solar panels is dwindling — CAISO issued an Emergency Energy Alert 3, the highest alert stage, and one step from instituting rolling blackouts.

But then came the text message. At 5.45pm local time, residents in certain counties got a message from the California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Emergency Services warning them of looming blackouts if they didn’t take action to conserve more energy.

“Conserve energy now to protect public health and safety. Extreme heat is straining the state energy grid,” the alert read.

“Power interruptions may occur unless you take action. Turn off or reduce nonessential power if health allows, now until 9pm.”

Californians, it seems, listened.

At 5.50pm local time on Tuesday, the state was using 50,403 megawatts of electricity, according to data from CAISO. But by 6pm the state was using just 48,769 MW — a three per cent drop in just 10 minutes.

For reference, demand actually increased by 30 MW between 5.50pm and 6pm the day before.

The efforts might seem small, but California made it through the record-breaking day without any rolling blackouts.

Some cities in northern California, including Alameda and Palo Alto, may have briefly instituted rolling blackouts for some customers due to a miscommunication error, reports The Mercury News.

Electricity demand on Wednesday is forecast to be nearly as high as it was on Tuesday as the heat continues in the state, and CAISO has issued a Flex Alert for the afternoon into the evening.

But the worst of the heatwave appears to be over, with temperatures forecast to finally subside by the end of the week.

Electricity needs in California have been a politically charged topic in recent months. Recently, the state legislature, with the support of Governor Newsom, approved plans to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open five years past its scheduled closure in 2025 to shore up electricity supplies over the decade.

The decision came despite protests from some anti-nuclear activists.

Heatwaves like the one in the western US this week are likely to become much more common as the climate crisis grows.

According to a United Nations climate science panel, heatwaves that once occurred every 10 years would occur every other year if the world reached 2C of warming above 19th-century temperatures.

Already, the planet has warmed about 1.1-1.2C since the start of the 20th century.