Mass storm outages bring misery across California, exposing power grid’s vulnerabilities

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Mass storm outages bring misery across California, exposing power grid’s vulnerabilities

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Grace Toohey

Fri, January 13, 2023 at 5:00 AM MST·8 min read

PG&E workers toil in the evening above Highland Avenue to replace equipment damaged by high winds in Santa Cruz, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (Shmuel Thaler/The Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP)
Pacific Gas & Electric workers toil into the evening above Highland Avenue to replace equipment damaged by high winds in Santa Cruz on Tuesday. (Shmuel Thaler / Santa Cruz Sentinel via Associated Press)

David Higares was on his fourth day without power in his Morada home in San Joaquin County when he woke up to indoor temperatures barely above 50 degrees.

His lights had flickered twice since his neighborhood outside Stockton went dark Saturday, following one of the train of atmospheric river storms, but his home remained dark, he said. Each time he checked, it seemed Pacific Gas & Electric had again pushed back the estimate for restoring power.

“It feels endless at this point,” said Higares, who lost all the food in his refrigerator and freezer due to spoilage. “Basically, we’re camping indoors.”

Since New Year’s Eve, hundreds of thousands of Californians have lost power — many multiple times — as a string of severe winter storms has provided the latest glimpse into how extreme weather tied to climate change is challenging California’s power grid in unprecedented ways.

Increased stress on the electric grid has previously been most apparent in the summer and fall months, when wildfires have forced shutoffs to avoid lines sparking flames and during extreme heat when officials have requested customers limit power use during peak times.

But this powerful string of storms wreaked a new kind of havoc for utility providers, with heavy rains and high winds pummeling drought-stressed land, toppling trees onto power lines, knocking down support poles and blocking access to certain areas. At one point, more than 400,000 were without electricity, the vast majority in Northern California. For some, getting power back was a days-long ordeal. Others said they felt as if they were caught in a cycle of losing and regaining power.

“We expect, unfortunately, more weather extremes, more climate volatility — not just hotter in the summer, but more extreme weather in our winters,” said Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which advocates on behalf of utility ratepayers. “Utilities [should be] viewing themselves as part of an ecosystem, if you will, of disaster preparedness.”

As the state looks for options to strengthen its power grid in the face of these more powerful storms, officials are running into some of the same challenges as when responding to extreme heat or fire dangers.

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