You’re not having a nightmare; the National Weather Service really did issue an “Excessive Heat Warning” for now until Thursday evening, marking the second heat wave of the month. Heat waves are nothing new to Los Angeles; scientists have been predicting for some time they’ll happen more often as a result of fossil fuel use and the greenhouse effect, and their predictions appear to be coming true. Meanwhile, air conditioner ownership in the western United States has risen from 40% in the late 1990’s to over 65% today. On top of that, recent natural gas pipeline failures, as well as the Aliso Canyon blowout, crimp the LADWP’s ability to generate power locally. Oh, and much of the LADWP’s infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Put it all together, and you have the ingredients for more frequent power outages.
At today’s LADWP board meeting, General Manager David Wright said the July 6-8 outage was like nothing the LADWP has ever seen before. The sudden temperature increase of 20 degrees, to the highest temperature ever seen in Los Angeles, triggered 750 outages — far more in the metro area, and more in underground cables, than in the usual heat wave. Essentially, many people turned their air conditioners on for three days and three nights solid, producing a huge load, explained Wright.
In the part of the city built before air conditioners, underground cables were not built to handle that load. And making matters worse, when an underground cable blows, it takes a lot longer to find and fix than when a transformer blows. Wright said that virtually every linesman in Southern California was called up to deal with the emergency. In all, a total of 114,000 customers lost power at some point; as many as 46,000 customers were without power at any given moment. This was considered a Level 3 emergency by LADWP, the kind of thing expected when there is an earthquake.
You might be wondering, what is the LADWP doing about preventing future outages? After a power outage in 2006 affecting 73,000 customers, the DWP started taking reliability more seriously, and began publishing reliability metrics monthly. After years of limited progress, the city realized a rate increase would be needed to fund the needed improvements, and one was passed in 2016. The changes are being phased in over five years, are not yet at full strength, and it will take years to clear the backlog of deferred maintenance … hence it should come as no surprise there are still outages during heat waves. Even after the ramp-up is complete in 2021, it may not quite keep up with aging equipment, according to a report by the city’s Ratepayer Advocate. For instance, it will only replace wooden power poles on an 80 year cycle, which is a bit of a problem given that their lifespan is 60 years. And it will replace underground cables on a 112 year cycle rather than the preferred cycle of every 75 years, a decision likely to be revisited given this month’s experience. How important is reliable power to ratepayers? Are they willing to pay for a more robust reliability program — or will they complain about high rates, and discourage further investment? Only time will tell. One opportunity to further improve reliability is for LADWP to build it in when upgrading the grid to handle widespread use of electric cars and heating; LADWP’s 100% renewable energy study is looking at how that would work.
You might also be wondering, what can you do right now? The #1 tip during a heat wave – despite the natural urge to set your A/C as cold as it goes – is to set it no cooler than 78 degrees, and turn it off when you leave the house. Also, don’t run appliances like dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric car chargers, or pool pumps between 2pm and 9pm. These simple steps help prevent power outages. It’s annoying, but really important; please do your part!
You can also prepare for the next heat wave. Adding shade awnings or insulating your house, perhaps as part of a deep energy retrofit as practiced by local companies like Building Doctors, can both make your home more comfortable and reduce the load on your air conditioner. When you replace appliances, choose efficient models that save energy to reduce your power bill and load on the grid, and consider smart appliances (e.g. thermostats or electric vehicle chargers) that automatically adjust to reduce energy use during peak periods. If cost is a barrier, check out LADWP’s rebate programs which make choosing more efficient equipment easier on your budget.
Frequent heat waves are likely to be the new normal… it’s worth a little work to be prepared for the next one, and help keep the power on.