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Heat Wave Causes Power Outages In California

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A heat wave in the West is causing rolling blackouts in California. Here's Jeff Smith with California's largest utility Pacific Gas and Electric.

JEFF SMITH: We are encouraging our customers to conserve as much energy as possible over the course of the next few days because we do anticipate that this heat wave is going to continue.

FADEL: Here to talk about this is Lily Jamali from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: Thanks, Leila.

FADEL: So Lily, how widespread are these blackouts?

JAMALI: Well, millions of Californians were told on pretty short notice to brace for these power outages. This weekend, on PG&E's territory alone in the north of the state, around a quarter-million people actually lost power, first on Friday evening then again on Saturday. And it really caught people by surprise. California hasn't experienced this type of outage since the 2001 energy crisis. We got a brief reprieve yesterday, but we're all bracing ourselves to see what happens tonight.

FADEL: So what's going on? Is it just the heat, or are there other factors at play?

JAMALI: Well, the heat wave is definitely a huge part of this and will be through the middle of this week. Because it's been so hot with temperatures setting records up and down the state, people are using a lot of power right now to stay cool. In California, there's a nonprofit called the ISO that operates most of the grid. And what they saw was demand for electricity getting dangerously close to what power plants were producing. So with that supply-demand mismatch, they directed the utilities to start shutting off power to parts of their systems. And just to be clear, this is different from the power shutoffs aimed at preventing fires. We had a bunch of those last year. There, it's the utilities making the call. Here, they're being told what to do to ensure that the whole system doesn't crash. And when you get a system-wide failure, it can take a lot longer - sometimes days - to recover from. That's what officials are trying to prevent.

FADEL: So how are our elected officials responding to the blackouts?

JAMALI: Well, for one thing, Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling for an investigation into what happened this weekend. Energy politics brought down another governor almost two decades ago. Gray Davis faced a recall in part because of blackouts then, and Newsom is well aware of that. He is calling a state of emergency and said it was unacceptable that people didn't have enough time to prepare. Meanwhile, the manager of the state grid is holding a linchpin of the energy market here, a bidding system that involves buying and selling power ahead of time. Critics say that system can cause wild fluctuations in price and lead to shortages.

FADEL: So what are residents doing now that these blackouts are happening or are threatening to happen?

JAMALI: Yeah. Well, conservation is really key right now. Utilities are asking people to raise their thermostats to 78 degrees. Basically, they just want people to use less power if they can, especially when demand spikes in the late afternoons. The problem is there aren't many places to go to cool off right now. Because of the pandemic, places like malls and movie theaters pose a health risk even if they are open, same with many cooling centers. And we're not congregating in big office buildings where the air conditioner is blasting. Many people are working from home, so the AC is blasting there if they have it. And so what you have is an already dicey situation getting a lot more complicated because of the pandemic.

FADEL: That's reporter Lily Jamali with member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much.

JAMALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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