Bits and pieces
Heat waves, power grids, right-wing snowflakes, maps
I remember September as a time of crisp air, cool nights and 75-degree days, the yellowing aspen leaves dancing brilliantly against the almost painfully blue sky. Labor Day weekend was for camping in the desert as the blistering August heat had finally subsided. It was when you mourned the imminent loss of your tomatoes to the first killing frost and when I used to anxiously dream of fleeing south in a desperate bid to stay ahead of autumnal melancholy that always infects me this time of year.
Climate change seems to be pushing all of that later into the year. At least that’s been the case so far this September, as a blistering and interminable heat wave blanketed a big swath of the Western U.S. California was hardest hit, especially the northern part of the state, where several all-time records fell and then fell again as the heat just dragged on for day after day after day. Some places saw triple digit temperatures for nearly two weeks straight.
Some notable temperatures:
A slew of all-time high temperature records—many of which had stood for a century or more—were broken in northern California, including: Calistoga (118 F), Healdsburg (117 F), Sacramento (116 F), and Santa Rosa (115 F).
The heat wasn’t confined to Cali, by any means. Salt Lake City tied its all-time high temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit; Swan Valley, Idaho, recorded a new record of 103 F; and Coquille, Oregon, broke a long string of 70 and 80 degree days with a scorching 103 F (the mercury topped out at 73 F on the previous day). I figured that last one had to be a weather station gone rogue; there was just no way! (My wife’s parents live in Coquille, and it ain’t a hot place). But I looked at other nearby stations and, yes, it went from the 70s on one day to the high 90s/low 100s the next, and back down into the 80s and 70s 24 hours later. Wild.
Death Valley clocked 125 degrees F, a monthly record, made more remarkable by the fact that it came in the middle of a string of nine consecutive 120-degree-plus days.
Equally alarming, at least for me, were the number of monthly and all-time high minimum temperatures that were broken during that first ten days of September. The nighttime low was 86 F in Odessa, Washington, an all-time record. Death Valley’s low temperature on Sept. 3 was a blistering 102 degrees F. I mean… What? Imagine trying to sleep in that kind of heat.
Grand Canyon river runners would have done well to sleep in the river on Sept. 3 as the nighttime low was 95 F at Phantom Ranch; the mercury bottomed out at 92 F in Needles, California, and 88 F in Imperial County, where Colorado River water is used to keep farm fields from shriveling into dust. So much for cuddling up on those crisp, cool September nights.
As for that painfully blue sky? Its brilliance has been diluted by an almost constant haze of wildfire smoke. While the abundant monsoon seems to have kept the late summer blazes at bay in the Southern Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies aren’t so lucky.
78 large wildfires are currently burning across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. California reports 10 current blazes, but the Santa Ana winds are still to come.
So far this year 50,691 fires have burned through 6.7 million acres; the ten-year, year-to-date average is 6 million acres.
All of this heat, as you’ve probably heard, put a lot of stress on the Western power grid, especially California’s, where the high temperatures were most widespread. When the temperatures are extreme, air-conditioners have to work harder to keep homes and businesses and offices habitable, which draws more power. On the hottest day of the recent heat wave, California’s power demand topped out at just above 52,000 megawatts. That’s not only a new record, but is also about 25% higher than on the previous Tuesday, when temperatures were normal, showing how much heat can tax the grid.
And those power demand peaks tend to occur in the late-afternoon, just when solar output is dropping off. This can lead to a supply-demand imbalance on the grid, which can lead to catastrophic failure, i.e. the lights go out and the air-conditioner shuts down when you need it most. In order to avoid this sort of uncontrolled outage, grid operators will, as a last resort, implement planned rotating outages, also known as rolling blackouts.
The mere prospect of rolling blackouts thrilled right-wing, fossil fuel-loving pundits, who blamed the potential outages on California’s green-leaning energy policies. While I hesitate to repeat their inane comments, I feel like you have to see them to believe them, so:
Here’s a little sampling, in case you missed it:
The Washington Times opines that California faces a grid-collapse nightmare because Democrats are “trying to impose a green energy secular religion on their people.”
Syndicated columnist Michael Reagan: “Having to conserve energy is just the latest form of torture California’s Democrat rulers have inflicted on its 40 million citizens.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell: “California’s love affair with fickle, unreliable green energy could force its residents to put up with rolling blackouts just to conform to wealthy liberals’ preferences.”
And The Federalist’s David Harsanyi, who bemoaned the transition “away from modernity and into windmills, choo-choo trains, folding fans, and candles,” whined about having to keep his thermostat at a “stifling 78.” That sacrifice, he said, showed that, “Decarbonization is objectively immoral.”
What a bunch of snowflakes these folks are, melting at a “stifling” 78 degrees and feeling “tortured” by (gasp) being asked to charge their electric vehicles at night or during the middle of the day! The sacrifices! Woe is you! Not only are these knuckleheads a bunch of weaklings, but they are also wrong about the root causes of the grid near-emergency. It’s not the “Green New Deal,” it’s climate change, dummies!
Yes, loads of solar power on a grid without battery backup can make it more difficult to manage the grid and to retain the critical balance between power supply and power demand—thus the dreaded California Duck Curve. But there are ways around that, from batteries (at one point batteries discharged 3,000 megawatts into California’s grid, eclipsing Diablo Canyon nuclear plant’s contribution) and other forms of energy storage; to more diverse clean energy resources, such as wind power and geothermal; to demand response (I’ll get to that in a minute); to “geographic smoothing,” or moving solar and wind power across vast spaces via long-distance transmission lines.
California relied on all of that for 10 days straight as the heat—and the air-conditioning—churned relentlessly. But they don’t yet have enough of all of those things in place, so they also had to rely on natural gas generators, i.e. greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels, for backup. It worked: Much to the right-wing snowflakes’ dismay, California never had to implement rolling blackouts (although a couple of utilities did implement their own outages due to a miscommunication).
Yeah, the power stayed on. And the hero of the day? Californians, who, when asked to respond to the rising power demand (demand response), did so by turning off extra lights, adjusting their thermostats, and unplugging their electric cars. And how long did this “torture” last? About three hours. By then, the danger had passed, and folks could plug back in. In other words, Mitch McConnell and friends are whining about using electricity wisely for a few hours as though it’s some sort of torture. Give me a friggin’ break.
The funny thing is that literally the day after California’s grid near-emergency subsided, Oregon utilities shut off power to about 40,000 people, not because of solar or wind or green energy policies, but to reduce the risk of their equipment sparking wildfires during extremely dry, hot, windy conditions. Yeah, so they actually had a full on planned blackout, caused by climate change. Maybe Mitch oughta direct his ire towards global warming. Maybe?
FURTHER READING: For more on the intricacies involved in the touchy dance between climate change and the power grid, check out this explainer I wrote:
And, for more on off-grid living (a great way to free one’s self from FlexAlerts and grid woes):
And now, maps! If you’ve been reading the Land Desk for any time at all, you know I love maps. Old ones. New ones. Paper ones. Interactive digital ones. I’m delighted to share a few more with you.
The feds recently released the Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation tool. It includes a map that allows you to track climate-related hazards in real-time (Extreme Heat, Drought, Wildfire, Inland Flooding, Coastal Flooding). These maps are available separately in other places, but this puts them all into one easy spot. It also includes an Assessment Tool, which allows a user to plug in their town or address and see climate projections under lower- and higher-emissions scenarios. Check it out.
Here’s another one from the feds, in which they merge power system maps with drought maps. Why do we care whether power plants are in drought? Because most power plants use water. Hydroelectric dams rely on water to produce power, of course, and drought diminishes hydropower capacity by lowering reservoir levels. Most thermal power plants (coal, nuclear, natural gas) rely on water for cooling and steam generation, and become less efficient as the water warms up. Unfortunately the size of the circles has nothing to do with the output of the power plants. But hey.
And, finally, there’s this one, which I can’t stop looking at. It’s crazy and kind of scary, even. Aaron Smith, a University of California, Davis, agricultural economics professor, used USDA data to put together this map showing what crops are growing where. It can display all crops, or you can pick a single crop, and it includes a slider to compare from year to year in one easy mouse motion. Unfortunately, the data only goes back to about 2008 for most places, and while Smith’s map shows all crops, the legend only includes 14 crops. But, you can go to the USDA map (which is not as user-friendly) and check out other crops, like dry beans or potatoes. Also, the map isn’t super-detailed: I did a search for grapes in Colorado and they showed up in Mesa County, but not in McElmo Canyon or the North Fork Valley. One thing that quickly will become apparent is the large amount of acreage planted with alfalfa, especially in the Interior West.
Looks like that’s all I have space for today (but I have another cool map to share with you next week! So stay tuned.) Have a good weekend! And may your September nights be crisp and cool and clear.