Millions in California hit by extreme heat and blackouts amid Covid-19 pandemic

People at the beach amid a severe heat wave in Venice, California, on Aug 15, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (BLOOMBERG) - First, it was the prospect of wildfires that took down large swaths of California's power grid. Now, it is the worst heat wave in 70 years.

Climate change is contributing to increasingly extreme weather in California.

Less than a year ago, millions of people were plunged into darkness in an effort to keep power lines from sparking catastrophic wildfires. This time, dangerously high temperatures are taxing the system, bringing about the state's first rolling blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis.

What's more, they are hitting just as the coronavirus pandemic has trapped people indoors in a state that has recorded more Covid-19 infections than any other place, leaving the powerless with a difficult choice between enduring the heat indoors and seeking relief elsewhere.

It is the latest collision of wild weather and the pandemic simultaneously wreaking havoc upon the world.

Last week, Tropical Storm Isaias left millions across the eastern US without power for days, forcing remote workers into coffee shops and crowded parking lots to access Internet.

For Californians, Saturday (Aug 15) was the second night in a row that grid operator California Independent System Operator made the rare call to shut off power.

An estimated 352,500 customers went dark - or roughly one million people based on the average size of a household. A day earlier, about two million people lost service over the course of four hours.

"I'm pretty shocked by this, I think everybody is," said Associate Professor Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Programme at Stanford University. "This has to be addressed with a lot of attention, and fast."

Extreme weather fuelled in part by climate change has taken a profound toll on electrical grids in recent weeks. Just days ago, millions of people lost power across the US Midwest after a wall of lightning, hail and deadly winds tore a path of ruin from central Iowa to Chicago. Before that, Tropical Storm Isaias darkened homes from the Carolinas to Connecticut.

For California, the problem is heat. An unrelenting high-pressure system is pushing temperatures upward, leaving the region facing what is expected to be its hottest two weeks in 70 years. That is driving up power demand to extreme levels, making it harder for generating plants to keep pace.

"There needs to be a quick and serious look at what our reserves are and the degree of which market conditions are affecting their quality and reliability," Prof Wara said.

The abrupt and unannounced nature of the rotating outages made the situation especially disruptive for those affected.

Ms Mandy Feuerbacher, an immigration attorney in Los Gatos, saw her lights go out without warning on Friday evening. Her two-year-old twins were up until 2am crying from the heat. She and her husband moved their beds into the downstairs kitchen, hoping it would be cool enough in there for them to sleep.

"The babies were so hot. They were freaking out. We were really worried about our food spoiling," Ms Feuerbacher said. "It was terrible."

Regions around the world have been grappling with extreme heat, including parts of Europe and the eastern US, where temperatures last month were expected to set records for New York and Boston.

Last month tied for the world's second-hottest July on record and the hottest ever in the northern hemisphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The National Weather Service has issued excessive heat warnings across California through Wednesday and is forecasting temperatures as high as 45 deg C in some parts.

"It will be a tad cooler on Sunday," the agency said, but the heat gets worse Monday through Wednesday.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.