From the Nez Perce on their reservation in Idaho to the iconic national park in California, Yosemite, are just two examples of wildfires igniting throughout the overheated and bone-dry conditions of the western United States.  

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LA Times writes on how California narrowly escaped rolling blackouts as a wildfire in Oregon almost derailed the California power grid. Temperatures in California have been godawful high; millions were able to escape furnace-like temperatures in their homes with this near miss.

The next 28 hours offered a harrowing preview of life in the 21st century American West as greenhouse gases keep piling up in the atmosphere and as power companies switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy — a transition that’s badly needed to stem the climate crisis, but which brings its own challenges.

Here’s what happened.

State officials expected energy supplies to be tight Friday. The National Weather Service was forecasting temperatures of 110 degrees in Palmdale, 113 in Redding and 126 in Death Valley (it ultimately hit 130). People would be cranking their air conditioners late into the evening, right as the sun went down and the solar farms stopped generating. It was exactly the kind of situation that led to brief rolling blackouts for a few hundred thousand homes and businesses in August.

Meanwhile, the Bootleg fire was spreading fast, burning through Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest near transmission lines that bring electricity from the Pacific Northwest to California. On Thursday evening, California dispatched several teams of firefighters to help battle the blaze.

“At that point, we didn’t know how many lines we were at risk of losing,” said Mark Rothleder, chief operating officer at the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO.

Rothleder never had an easy job, and it’s only getting harder as solar panels and wind turbines replace coal and natural gas. CAISO is responsible for keeping electricity supply and demand in balance for most of the state, every second of every day.

Eventually, that balance may be easier to strike. But the next few summers, at least, will be a constant battle. The clean energy technologies capable of filling in the gaps when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing are still relatively nascent, and critics say California’s energy regulators have been far too slow to put the pieces into place.

On Friday morning, power grid conditions started to change quickly as homes and businesses used a bit more energy than CAISO expected. Agency officials knew they might have to call on “demand response” programs that pay people to use less power.Still, they felt the situation was under control — except for the Bootleg fire.

“We actually decided the risk was great enough, we should probably get in place an emergency proclamation,” Rothleder said in a phone interview with The Times.

CAISO officials were glad they didn’t wait. A few minutes after they asked for Newsom’s help, a power line that’s part of the California-Oregon Intertie was knocked out by the fire. The heavy smoke acted as a conductor, interfering with the electric current.

“Within a few minutes, the second line went. And then a few minutes later, the third line went,” Rothleder said.

California suddenly found itself short about 4,000 megawatts of imported energy — nearly 10% of Friday’s peak demand. And the situation was actually worse than that. Grid officials also had to limit the amount of power running north to south across the state line on another giant electricity cord known as the Pacific DC Intertie, to account for the possibility of that line suddenly going down. All told, California was looking at a 5,500-megawatt hole.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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