The Californian heat wave exposes the limits of climate plans

In early September, Jason Smith was optimistic about this fall’s wine grape harvest at his vineyard in Monterey County, a fertile coastal region of California known for its abundant fruit and vegetable crops. “The year was going wonderfully,” he said.

But then came the brutal heatwave that has brought record-breaking temperatures across California since late August. Many of Smith’s grapes have dehydrated in the scorching sun. Now he expects a harvest that will typically continue through early November to finish a month earlier and estimates that the intense heat blast will cost him around $ 3 million.

“He’s a great one [financial] It struck that it literally vanished, “said Smith, president and chief executive officer of Valley Farm Management, his family-owned vineyard management company. He fears California’s wine grape spoils may drop to levels seen in 2020. when the smoke from the fires devastated the crop. “We are looking at less income and.. all our expenses are higher, we have higher inflation and labor costs, so the margins will shrink.”

The extreme heat forced California into an emergency situation as temperatures soared well above 100F (37.78C) for days on end. Sacramento, the state capital, set an all-time high of 116F on Tuesday, while Death Valley topped 125F, nearly equaling the 126F achieved in Mecca, California in 1950, the hottest September temperature ever recorded anywhere. of the earth.

With temperatures so dangerous, officials rushed to provide services to the most vulnerable, particularly the homeless and the elderly. Throughout the state, “cooling stations” have been set up offering nebulizers and cold drinks. Nursing homes have installed backup generators in case the strained state power grid becomes overwhelmed.

Californians take refuge in a “cooling center” in Los Angeles. Temperatures in the state have risen well above 100 ° F for several consecutive days © Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

“We have never seen this kind of extreme heat in this long period of time,” said Gavin Newsom, governor of California, Wednesday.

The heatwave has put Newsom, a politician who is believed to have national ambitions, at risk as he seeks to transform California into a zero-carbon state by 2045. Last month, the state legislature approved a package from $ 54 billion to fight climate change and the governor has enacted rules that will phase out the sale of gasoline cars by 2035. But any blackout as California’s power grid struggles with the heat could question the effectiveness of its aggressive push to increase the use of renewable energies.

As Californians turned up the air conditioning to fend off rising temperatures this month, the grille began to show tension. Newsom asked the public to save energy during the evening rush hours by turning up the thermostats and avoiding the use of large appliances. On Tuesday, California-based energy company Pacific Gas & Electric warned more than 500,000 customers to prepare for power outages.

The network was almost overwhelmed around 5:30 pm that day, when demand hit a record high of 52.06 GW. State officials have implemented an emergency SMS alert system more typically used for problems such as missing persons, asking residents to use less energy. Newsom said that within half an hour of the text, the energy demand fell by 2.6 GW. “It was a turning point,” he said at a press conference. “People have reduced their energies [use] and let us through.

Elliot Mainzer, president of the California Independent System Operator (Caiso), which manages the flow of energy in the state, agreed that rapid public reaction was the key to avoiding blackouts. “In a few moments, we saw a significant reduction in load,” he said. “That significant response from California consumers. . . brought us back from the edge. ”

But Newsom acknowledged that the state couldn’t count on texting residents to keep the lights on. “He abuses it and starts to dilute,” he said this week.

Although disruptions have been avoided, concern for the future of the network remains. California has become a leader in renewable energy, with a quarter of its electricity generated from solar and wind in 2021, compared to 12% for the United States as a whole. But critics say the transition has left the state vulnerable given the difficulty of storing wind and solar energy, particularly as drought has begun to strain hydropower in recent years.

Carrie Bentley, chief executive of consultant Gridwell and former Caiso political officer, said the state was “behind the curve” in ensuring a reliable network in the face of climate change. *

California had allowed the closure of too much fossil fuel capacity without adequate renewables and large-scale backup batteries, said, “We have pulled out too many gas plants too soon. And now we are seeing the impacts. We rely on our neighbors [for electricity imports]. We rely on cell phone alerts. And so far it’s working. . . but it won’t work forever ”.

The recent near miss was due to “effective network management and a dose of luck,” Bentley said.

Newsom recently acknowledged that there was “unprecedented stress” on the state’s energy system as last month it made a successful push to keep California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon open. The plant, which accounts for 9 percent of the state’s power generation and 17 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources, was supposed to close by 2025 but will remain open for another decade.

For now, the immediate threat to the California grid appears to lessen as temperatures drop, allowing the National Weather Service to remove its excessive heat warnings from Friday night. But the dramatic weather was to continue, with a tropical storm expected to bring heavy rain and wind to Southern California this weekend.

Smith plans to spend the next few weeks harvesting and shipping as many grapes as possible.

The blow to his finances from the heat wave is “depressing,” he said. But she added: “This is agriculture. You are at the complete disposal of Mother Nature. You lift your boots and figure out how to make it work.

*An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the consulting firm

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