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Californian heatwave exposes the limits of climate plans

At the beginning of September, Jason Smith was optimistic about this autumn’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 along wonderfully,” he said.

But then came the brutal heatwave that has brought record-breaking temperatures across California since the end of August. Many of Smith’s grapes have dehydrated in the blazing sun. He now expects a harvest that would typically continue until early November to end a month earlier and estimates that the intense burst of heat will cost him about $3mn.

“It’s a big [financial] hit that literally evaporated,” said Smith, president and chief executive of Valley Farm Management, his family-owned vineyard management company. He worries that California’s wine grape haul could fall to levels seen in 2020, when smoke from wildfires devastated the crop. “We’re looking at less income and . . . all our expenses are higher, we have inflation and higher labour costs, so margins are going to get smaller.”

The extreme heat has forced California on to an emergency footing 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 matching the 126F reached in Mecca, California, in 1950, the hottest-ever recorded September temperature anywhere on earth.

With temperatures at such dangerous levels, officials have rushed to provide services for the most vulnerable, particularly the homeless and elderly. “Cooling stations” offering spray misters and cold drinks have been set up across the state. Nursing homes have deployed back-up generators in case the state’s strained electricity grid gets overwhelmed.

Californians take cover at a Los Angeles ‘cooling centre’. Temperatures in the state soared well past 100F for several days running © Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

“We’ve never seen this kind of extreme heat for this extended period of time,” said Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, on Wednesday.

The heatwave has posed risks for Newsom, a politician believed to harbour national ambitions, as he seeks to turn California into a zero-carbon state by 2045. Last month, California’s legislature approved a $54bn package to combat climate change and the governor enacted rules that will phase out the sale of petrol-fuelled cars by 2035. But any blackout as California’s power grid struggles in the heat could cast doubt on the effectiveness of his aggressive push to increase the use of renewable energy.

As Californians cranked up their air conditioning to fend off rising temperatures this month, the grid began to show the strain. Newsom pleaded with the public to conserve energy during peak evening hours by turning up thermostats and avoiding the use of large appliances. On Tuesday California-based energy utility Pacific Gas & Electric warned more than 500,000 customers to prepare for rolling power outages.

The grid came close to being overwhelmed at around 5:30pm that day, when demand peaked at a record 52.06GW. State officials deployed an emergency text alert system more typically used for issues such as missing persons, asking residents to use less power. Newsom said that within half an hour of the text, power demand fell by 2.6GW. “It was a game changer,” he said at a press conference. “People reduced their energy [use] and got us through.” 

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

But Newsom acknowledged the state could not count on texting residents to keep the lights on. “You overuse that and it begins to dilute itself,” he said this week.

While outages have so far been averted, concern about the future of the grid remains. California has become a leader in renewable power, with a quarter of its electricity generated from solar and wind in 2021, compared with 12 per cent for the US as a whole. But critics say the transition has left the state vulnerable given the difficulty of storing wind and solar energy — particularly as droughts have started to take a toll on hydropower in recent years.

Carrie Bentley, chief executive of consultant Gridwise and former Caiso policy official, said the state was “behind the curve” in ensuring a reliable grid in the face of climate change.

California had allowed too much fossil fuel capacity to be shut down without adequate renewable sources and large-scale back-up batteries, she said: “We retired too many gas plants too early. And now we’re seeing the impacts. We’re relying on our neighbours [for electricity imports]. We’re relying on cell phone alerts. And it’s working so far . . . but it won’t work forever.”

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

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

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

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

The hit to his finances from the heatwave is “depressing”, he said. But, he added: “That’s farming. You’re at the beck and call of Mother Nature. You pull up your boots and figure out how to make it work.”

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