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Roundtable: This week's heat wave and California's climate future

 September 9, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: It's the end of a heat wave that almost brought a return of California's rolling blackouts with demand for energy setting new records. What are we learning about the work and sacrifice needed to meet our future climate goals ? And how can we better care for those most at risk ? I'm Matt Hoffman and this is KPBS Roundtable. This has been stark , unprecedented record breaking week. We started with flex alerts as early as last Wednesday. We thought we'd be done by now. This heat wave now looks to be extended into this weekend. We'll start seeing some cooling on Saturday and Sunday , but over the next two days , we're still going to have to be mindful of work yet to be done. That's California Governor Gavin Newsom explaining the jump in energy demand this week. He also thanked people who paid attention to news coverage and all those alerts that were sent to millions of smartphones. The latest heat wave is expected to break this weekend. But we'll be in this position again soon enough. That's why we're here talking this week with our guests. KPBS reporter John Carroll is here , Associated Press climate and environment reporter Kathleen Ronayne. And KPCC climate emergency reporter Aaron Stone joins us. I want to thank you all so much for being here. Kathleen , the first question is going to go to you.

S2: I think we were pretty close on Tuesday , which was the hottest day of this heat wave. So the independent system operator , which manages reliability on the power grid , went all the way to what they call a stage three alert , which is basically as far as you can go before you hit blackouts , you're one step away from getting there. So they issued that on Tuesday. That was also when the state hit record high levels of energy demand. So more than 52,000 megawatts of power demand that topped a record from 2006. I mean , it was brutally hot across all parts of the state. And of course , we all saw that the Office of Emergency Services chose to take that step of sending out that wireless alert , which went to , I think they told me , two thirds of California counties , something like 27 million people. And that's a step that they weren't really prepared to take unless we were getting really close to a point where blackouts might happen. And if you look at the curve , you know , they say that it worked. I think the data from Callisto bears that out , that the demand really started to drop as soon as that alert hit people's phones. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. You have to wonder when they're sending out those alerts from the governor's office how close we are to maybe going over our energy usage. But , John , we know that a lot of us got those alerts this week asking people to conserve energy. And I guess it seems to have worked with the state reporting a noticeable drop in usage.

S3: When 4:00 rolls around , it starts to go and we're all back down. And so people really are apparently paying attention. But more than that , the best way I can answer that question is just been observing what people are doing in my neighborhood and more specifically in the building where I live. This building has central air. Thank you , Lord. There is a central open air atrium , and nearly every unit has a sliding glass door facing the atrium. So when it's a hot day and the doors are closed , it's a pretty safe bet. People are running their AC. But over the last few days , I've seen several units with their sliding glass doors open , especially during the hours of the flex alerts. And I've seen that same thing in my neighborhood in buildings that are obviously air conditioned , people opening windows where on any other hot day they'd more than likely be running their AC. So it's nice to see , you know , Californians , at least in our neck of the woods and apparently statewide because of the Cal ISO graph , are taking it seriously.

S1: Yeah , I remember some of those days are really hot. You can't have the door open. It was 89 degrees on Saturday night. Overnight. I was trying to sleep. I could not. We also have Aaron Stone here with us. She's the climate emergency reporter for KPCC. And Aaron , before we ask you about the ongoing heat wave. Can you first explain your title for us and sort of the urgency that it implies ? Sure.

S4: Yeah. So at KPCC , you know , we really believe that that this is is an emergency situation. And it was a big reason why , you know , management chose to put this as my job title. You know , we've heard from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , which is the world's leading authority on climate science , that we have very limited time to cut global emissions to avoid really terrible , even worse impacts that then we're already seeing. And it's going to be ongoing. There's there's no apocalypse date or anything , you know , I mean , when even if we don't reach these goals , life will go on and we are going to have to adapt. So that's what you do in an emergency. And that's why we we chose this title.

S1: And in some of your more recent work , you point out that heat is the deadly. Yes. Natural disaster. You actually spoke with the UCLA climate scientist about all this.

S4: But the signs are just so obvious at this point. And what really stood out to me is that this this heat wave is is truly indicative of a climate , a human the human footprint is really there. We're seeing hotter nights , just the sheer length of this heat wave. I mean , it's it's likely to be California's hottest and longest record heat wave. We all know that Labor Day weekend is always hot in Southern California , but for a long time , Californians , this is not normal and it's not it's abnormal and it's unnatural. And and it's caused by the the emissions , the greenhouse gas emissions we're pumping into the atmosphere. So that really stood out to me. And , you know as well , just the extreme daytime temperatures as well. There there are thresholds. The UCLA UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told me that we're reaching thresholds in areas that , you know , previously would be impossible. You know , we're seeing especially in the northern part of the state , in the central part of the state , these these super extreme temperatures. And , yeah , it's really , you know , maybe not so surprising to me as someone who's covered climate for a few years. But yeah , it's it's it's here. And that's really what stood out to me from from that conversation.

S1: And Kathleen , you want to jump in here ? Yeah.

S2: I think it's also important to remember with these extreme heat events is that typically what may happen when there's very hot weather during the day is at night you get some relief. And that may be happening in some parts of the state. But I know particularly in Sacramento , where I'm located , we're having daytime temps of 109 , 110 , I think a record of 116 for one point. And at night it usually gets down into the sixties in Sacramento. So things tend to cool off a bit even in the summer. But these past few days we've had the temperature saying , you know , in the eighties overnight. And that is also where you can start to get into some really dangerous situations for people with heat related illnesses , because there's no there's not as much opportunity for people to sort of cool down at nighttime and deal with that sustained long term heat. And so I think that is something that is definitely making this prolonged heat wave all the more difficult because we're not getting that nighttime relief in some places that we may normally be used to.

S1: So in the short term , though , we're going to have to get some relief and the demand on the grid requires more power to generate electricity. Kathleen , this one's going to you. And what I'm really curious about , what should people know about how the power is generated ? Like what role , if any , do fossil fuels play in the process ? We know we've moved away from coal , but other places use coal. We hear about gas. Where do we get the power from ? Sure.

S2: Fossil fuels actually still play quite a significant role in California's power grid , and that's by way of natural gas. So we certainly have ramped up solar , wind. We have hydropower , you know , other renewable and non-carbon sources. But fossil fuels still play a major role. So typically in California , during the daytime , you'll see solar power as the primary thing powering California's grid. We've even had , I think it was earlier this year , the IESO announced that we reached a small window where the state's power grid was entirely powered by renewables for for a few minutes of time. So we're certainly ramping them up. And they , you know , on any given day , solar could be , you know , 30 , 40 , much an even higher percentage of what we're powering the grid with. But we also do still use a lot of natural gas. So in the past few days , when the temperatures have been really , really high , natural gas has been our primary energy source all day long. You can go to the ISOs website. You can look at the power that is supplying our grid. And we haven't even had that moment where solar kind of spikes up above it. And that's because demand has been so high. So we do still rely on fossil fuels a lot. Not only that , the governor's office announced on Monday that for the first time we were turning on some natural gas fired backup generators. They're located in northern California. And as you may know , over the past couple of years , California has also worked to extend the life of some natural gas power plants along the coast that were slated for closure in 2020. The state sort of continues to keep writing policies to allow them to stay open so that we can tap them when we need to. So California has set really big goals on renewable energy , and in a lot of ways renewable is power. Our homes in a big way. But for now , fossil fuels also do play quite a significant role.

S1:

S3: And Newsom used to be against keeping that going. And he has changed his mind , shall we say , because of this crisis.

S1: And speaking of you , John , we know that you were down in Barrio Logan earlier this week during the heat wave , seeing how the unsheltered were coping. Can you describe the area there for our audience and how staying cool is definitely a challenge there.

S3: It is. We shot that story on Tuesday. We were on Commercial Street and 17th. If you're familiar with that part of town where Interstate five goes right over commercial. And before I get into what you're asking about Matt , I do want to point out this one unsettling juxtaposition where you're right in the shadow. I know , Matt , you know where I'm talking about of these fantastic , beautiful high rises and San Diego downtown in the East Village where rents , you know , are three , four or $5,000 a month. And then literally within a block , you're in this place where there were all sorts of unsheltered folks. The temperature was in the lower nineties when we were there. It was quite humid. There were tents all along the sidewalk , some under the bridge , others out in the sun. Now , of course , being on concrete when it's so hot outside is not pleasant. I spoke with Michael McConnell , who's been a homeless advocate for the last 13 years here. He told me about one man in the Midway District who was suffering from the heat to the point where he was panting. He refused offers of help , so McConnell gave him a bunch of bottles of cold water to put on his skin. He checked with him later in the day and told me the man , thankfully , had been able to cool down. But it's just a very difficult situation. The city crews come down there to clean the place out because there's trash and other stuff and so people have to pick up and move. And also when they're there , they're committing an infraction because they're blocking a right of way. So it's it's a very difficult issue , especially in this extreme heat.

S1: And you mentioned in that story that they had offered that one gentleman help. And , you know , sometimes we hear about this struggle that some care providers have in getting some of these unsheltered people to accept help. KPBS talked with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria about that earlier this week. Do we know , John , if that resistance eases a bit during extreme weather ? I know from my coverage for rain , it definitely does. More people go to these temporary shelters.

S3: But also when it gets really cold , you know , in the winter , they tend to that resistance goes away. But first , let me say that Mayor Gloria's administration does follow a policy of progressive enforcement. So , as I said , when people are blocking the sidewalk , which they inevitably , inevitably do , when they set up their tents , they are committing an infraction. The police give them a warning that they need to move on the first interaction. Assistance is also offered to get them into a shelter on the second and third interactions. They get a citation the fourth time they get arrested and taken to jail. As far as the resistance , some people have to accepting help. Michael McConnell told me and he would know that his observation is that that does not change because of the hot weather. Hmm.

S1: Hmm. You're listening to KPBS Roundtable. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. And our guests this week are John Carroll from KPBS News. AP reporter Kathleen Ronayne and Aaron Stone from KPCC. You know , this week , the headlines have all been about the demand that we're putting on the system. But what about the grid itself ? I mean , what's the concern for scaling these systems up if we're heading toward a future where fossil fuels are less of an option ? And Kathleen , I know that you touched on this a little bit earlier. We want to go to you , but start with Aaron here first. What are you hearing about this ? Yeah.

S4: So , you know , as Kathleen laid out , the this transition is happening and renewables are significantly powering the grid at certain times. But a big problem is that we're not storing enough power from those renewables while they're generating power. So so we need more battery storage. In the past few years , the state has dramatic pretty dramatically enhanced its its battery storage. But it's still clearly not enough so that that's really something that because obviously heat presents a conundrum that when we're trying to deal with this heat , we end up relying more on fossil fuels , which in turn make the problem worse. And to really achieve a reliable system , we need to be able to have stored power to get through these these tough times when the grid is really strained. So that's that's one big aspect of the transition and where we really need to go and move a little faster.

S1: And Kathleen , I know you kind of touched on that balance earlier.

S2: The California Energy Commission , which is the state's main planning agency for Energy Siting and Resource Development , has has a report that they put out in 2021 looking at this state policy that all of the state's energy come from renewable or non-carbon sources by 2045. And what they found is that we will need to look take how much battery storage we're building now and build it eight times , build eight times more and like eight times faster , some than some crazy scale like that to reach what we need to reach. And then same with , you know , solar and wind. The build rates need to nearly triple to get where we need to get by 2045. So certainly we're talking about a very aggressive build out. You know , there's definitely a hope and I think the facts are already bearing out that these technologies are becoming cheaper as they were on the market for longer and longer. There have been with solar panels and batteries , some supply chain issues that have been slowing things down and causing some problems in the immediate term. But it's a really , really big project the state is embarking on. And something that I also think is really interesting is it's not just the transition from fossil fuels to renewables that we're looking at. It's also quite a significant expansion in the amount of energy that we need from the grid. So the Energy Commission similarly predicts that by 2045 , remember , this is when we're not allowed to get any electricity from fossil fuels. Peak power demand is going to be 78,000 megawatts. So to put that in perspective , on Tuesday , we broke a record of power demand with 52,000 megawatts. So they think that that's going to jump significantly by 2045. And that's for all number of reasons. And , you know , we're embarking on this rapid decarbonization of the economy. So we're putting more people in electric cars , we're putting electric stoves , electric heat pumps in houses. So we're putting a lot more demand on the electric grid at the same time that we're trying to build it up. And when you talk to people in the Newsom administration or others who think a lot about the climate fight , you know , their response is sort of , you know , we know this is going to be tough , but we can't afford not to do this , given sort of what we're seeing with extreme weather and with all of the ways that climate change is already impacting us.

S1: And you mentioned that there's many avenues to get there. And we know that there's also a plan to phase out the sale of all gas powered new vehicles by 2035. And KPBS. John Carroll , we know that you visited a used car dealership or just a car dealership in general when the state announced this move.

S3: He told me he's all for environmentally positive change , but he also said he sees a lot of pitfalls and problems on the way to that day in 2035 , when no more gasoline powered cars can be sold in California. First off , he said , there needs to be a lot more charging stations. That's no mystery. We know that. And he also says they need to provide fast charging so you don't have to sit there for 15 minutes or more waiting for your car to get back up to speed. That probably won't end up being a big problem because we've got quite a bit of time to get many more charging stations up and running. But George went out to went on rather to point out other challenges. He says getting mechanics , trained on being able to work on electric vehicles will be a huge expense in both money and time for dealerships. And he says dealerships will obviously have to have their own charging stations a further expense and also that electric vehicles are way more expensive than gas powered cars.

S1: Yeah , you mentioned way more expense. I remember in your story you said that they were saying around $60,000. And even then when you factor in some of those tax credits , it's still a high cost for the average consumer. And Kathleen , you wanted to jump in here quickly.

S2: Yeah , a couple of things. I think the workforce concerns that John raises are really important. And I was having a conversation a couple of weeks ago with the head of a program in L.A. that's aiming to build out more charging stations. He was saying that one of the problems that they're already seeing is just having the workforce that can even like operate and maintain the charging stations as well as the workforce that is going to be able to handle the cars is really difficult. And so she was really advocating that the state make some investments in that workforce development because who's going to buy an electric car if there's nobody to work on it when it breaks down ? Right. But I do think one of the just important things to note when we talk about this is you can still buy a used gas powered car after 2035. You can still drive your existing gas powered car. This is not an effort by the state to , you know , physically take every single gas car. Road car off the road. It's going to be a long transition. And just a little , I guess , pet peeve of mine is the new some administration talks about it is a ban on the sale of gas for cars or 100% , you know , zero emission. But actually 20% of those sales can be plug in hybrids , which can run on gas and electricity. So we'll still get some emissions and some gas from those new cars that are sold in the state after 2035.

S1: And as we wrap up this whole show here , Aaron , I want to go to you again. We know that you've put out a call to people for their climate change questions.

S4: I mean , I think people are are getting to a point where they're pretty aware of of the the the situation. They have at least a general understanding of of climate change and its impact. And obviously , when we have these threats of rolling power outages , which are really terrifying , it perks people up. And we hear a lot because , you know , here in L.A. , we've got a lot of efforts to expand electrification in buildings. And I think we currently have the most charging stations of any city. And I think people make the connection between the challenges the grid is experiencing right now and they connect back to the future. So we definitely hear a lot of concerns about how all these solutions really work and can we do it and B and still maintain safety. But , you know , we also hear a lot about , you know , why there are certain things like the closing of seasonal pools or something like that. You know , why things that we that we might not think about , we hear about like , oh , well , my library was is closed on Labor Day weekend. And that's supposed to be the the first place I go when it's too hot. So there are kind of things that maybe , you know , governments aren't necessarily really thinking of and and saying that are they're their primary solutions right now in terms of dealing with a heat emergency , is cooling stations , is access to water and cool spaces , access to shady parks. But yeah , if we're still kind of in this old climate regime of like , oh , when September rolls around , we closed the public pools , we closed you know , we don't worry about , you know , the libraries being open. Then , you know , there's there's going to be a real shift in culture and daily life , I think.

S1: And yeah , you know , sometimes when we do these stories , we wonder , are people listening ? What are they thinking about ? Before we go , I want to open it up to John and Kathleen. Same question. Are you guys get any questions from audiences that sort of stick with you on this issue ? John , we can go to you first here.

S3: Well , first of all , I just wanted to follow up with what Aaron was saying about public pools. We know about that problem in San Diego because of sort of an adjunct issue , which is the supply chain challenges that we all now live through. And the city had to close for public pools to in disadvantaged neighborhoods where people really , really rely on them because of a shortage of a chemical that I'm spacing on right now. I'm sorry , I can't think of it , but that that is a big concern.

S1: And Kathleen , I know you do a lot of coverage on climate change for the AP.

S2: I think that I hear from readers as well as just people in my life , friends , family , a lot of questions about how all of this is going to work. And then just sort of a , I think , interesting note to Aaron's point about things like public libraries and pools and all of that. I remember reading an AP story that we did earlier this summer about Europe and how Europe was dealing with this massive heat wave. I'm sure some of you may have read the stories. I think , you know , public infrastructure is breaking down and Europe is just not used to heat waves at this level. And so many different things were happening. But one thing that was happening in , I believe , Spain is they were encouraging and instructing government buildings , other buildings to turn the heat way up. And then they sort of came out with a policy that you didn't have to wear neckties to work anymore. And so it's something that sounds so silly , but I thought it was really interesting because it's this sort of , you know , funny , imaginative , but also very relevant response to making it hotter in your work building , telling you that like you actually don't have to abide by this long dress code that you long have so that you can be like a little bit more comfortable. And so I think , you know , as we respond to what's going on with heat , it's sort of about all of the , you know , decarbonization policies that are being put in place , but also the lifestyle , things like how is this going to change , how people live and what are like little tweaks and adjustments we need to make to make people more comfortable. Like certainly I'm not saying that no one wearing a necktie in Spain is going to like help people , you know , with their extreme heat. But it's just a little example of saying , hey , maybe the way we've been doing things doesn't actually comport with this reality that we're in now.

S1: I want to thank you all so much for joining us on this week's edition of Cape. HBS roundtable. This week , we had John Carroll from KPBS News , Kathleen Ronayne from the Associated Press , and Aaron Stone from KPCC. You can stream the roundtable show as a podcast any time. KPBS Roundtable is produced by Ben Lacy. Rebecca Chacon is our technical director. And I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for listening. And we'll be back with you all next week.

California Heat Wave
John Antczak
/
Associated Press
A man creates giant soap suds bubbles at dawn Monday, Sept. 5, on the Manhattan Beach Pier in Manhattan Beach, Calif., as a severe heat wave gripped the state. Most of California's 39 million people are facing sweltering weather.
Energy resources were pushed to the limit this week as Southern California dealt with an unusually long stretch of extreme heat. We discuss the long term climate change implications and the challenges in getting people immediate relief.

KPBS Roundtable host Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on the heat wave that forced the state of California to enact flex alerts and other precautions aimed at reducing energy consumption during peak demand hours. Guests include KPBS reporter John Carroll, Associated Press climate and environment reporter Kathleen Ronayne and KPCC climate emergency reporter Erin Stone.