Sunday, June 13, 2021

This is the New California Normal

This is not a short term emergency. This is how California will operate until they take action to actually fix the underlying problems and adapt to their resource limitations and changing climate. 

  • Water restriction
  • Intermittent power during windy weather
  • Wildfires

Nearly 95% of California is experiencing extreme drought, and a drought state of emergency with restrictions on water use covers 42 counties, representing nearly a third of the state’s population. The East Bay counties, still without restrictions (yea senior water rights) will probably follow their neighbors as no rain is expected until at least October.  California’s wet season is finished, and the first six months of the water year rank as the fourth driest on record. There is no longer enough rain, snow and enough stored water to reliably supply all the water demand in California. 

from Drought Monitor

The first wildfires of the season are beginning to pop up. The Farm Fire from last week is under control as I write this, but over the weekend the Goose, Beale and the Flats fire broke out. So far twice as many acres have burned in California this year compared to last year at this time. Not a good sign. PG&E has already warned of more frequent (but hopefully shorter) Public Safety Power Shutoffs during this fire season as they institute new shut-off criteria under court oversight.

Though a natural part of California’s landscape, wildfire conditions across California have intensified due to increasing temperatures and dryness that we are told is the result of climate change. The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year. The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of wildfires across the state.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the World Meteorological Organization) considers some additional warming of the planet to be irreversible. According to the IPPC, “Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. ” The expected impacts are continued warming of the planet, rainfall pattern changes and significant rising of sea level. 

While the threat of wildfires continues to grow,  the electrical grid has not been hardened against the threat or even appropriately maintained. Much of California’s grid is uninsulated wire. The combination of uninsulated power lines with dry vegetation and high winds can uproot trees and branches, blow branches onto power lines or create sparks if power lines contact one another. Now, when high winds occur in at risk areas (see map below) these conditions call for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) where the power  to the at risk power lines is turned off to prevent sparks. 

from CA PUC

These intentional power outages occur across the state to prevent wildfires and keep communities safe. The Public Safety Power Shutoffs have been more sever in Northern and Central California where PG&E has lagged behind schedule (and Southern California Edison) in tree trimming and hardening of the electrical grid with insulated wire.

Southern California Edison anticipates fewer Public Safety Power Shutoffs because they have been working to strengthen their infrastructure for many years and now have installed insulated wire in about 25% of the service territory at highest risk of wildfire. Still that is only a quarter of the high risk areas and they are ahead of PG&E in installing technology to limit the scope of power shutoffs.

I am picking on California because a crisis is building quickly and it was my home for so long. But we all need to prepare for how climate change will impact our communities. We can no longer stop climate change, that time is long gone. As time goes on and China and the emerging economies continue to grow we become less relevant. Now we need to prepare. It is inexcusable what happened to the Texas grid during the unexpected freeze and the PMJ seems to be "Texasfing" their grid. 

Data for my pie is from: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2017) - "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions". Published online at


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