Climate change will likely worsen West Coast blackouts and cause energy price spikes, studies find

A pair of recent studies suggest West Coast residents and businesses will suffer more frequent blackouts and higher electricity prices because climate change will lead to more disruptive extreme weather events. The research papers were published in the scientific journal Earth’s Future.

“The impacts of climate change and extreme weather events on the grid, mostly in the form of drought and heat waves, are going to get worse under climate change,” co-author Jordan Kern, assistant professor of forestry and environment resources at North Carolina State University, said in a statement about the reports. Kern’s co-authors included professors of environmental science and engineering from the University of North Carolina, Oregon State University and the University of Washington.

In one study, computer models projected the West Coast electricity grid’s reliability between 2030 and 2060 under 11 different climate change scenarios, based on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and how much warming results. The researchers found more likelihood of blackouts in summer and early fall, largely driven by extreme heat in California causing increased demand for air conditioning. (West Coast states have interconnected power grids, so Washington and Oregon could be affected by California’s demand.)

Two people with dogs are seen in silhouette against a sunset punctuated by palm trees.
People walk their dogs past a malfunctioning traffic intersection following a power outage in Cardiff, Calif., in 2011. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Heat waves, droughts, wind storms and the wildfires caused by those conditions are risk factors for blackouts on the West Coast for supply-side reasons too: The region depends in part on hydropower, which could be reduced in years with more frequent and severe droughts due to climate change. Wind storms, extreme temperatures and fires can also take down power lines.

Although the researchers predicted only brief blackouts, they noted that a growing imbalance between supply and demand for power during heat waves would cause prices to spike up to California’s legal cap of $1,000 per megawatt hour. “When prices go up to $1,000 per megawatt hour, that’s the grid ringing the alarm bell,” Kern said.

In a second study, the authors projected West Coast electricity prices through 2050 if states add renewable energy sources to the grid, with natural gas as a backup during times of low energy production or high demand. Relative to the current, more fossil-fuel-dependent energy mix, increased wind power would reduce prices the most, the study found, and increasing solar power would be the second most effective way of reducing costs.

Photovoltaic panels at a solar farm.
Photovoltaic panels at the Midway I Solar Farm in Calipatria, Calif. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

However, the second study still found that climate change would drive some price increases and potential for blackouts. Even with a more renewable-based and resilient energy sector, higher demand for cooling and the effect of droughts on hydropower production would cause an imbalance between supply and demand. “When you think about the very worst years, those conditions will still be driven by what drives those events today: lack of water or a heat wave in the middle of the summer,” Kern said.

These events are not just predictions for the future: They are already occurring. States such as California and Texas have lost power at times due to extreme weather events linked to climate change in recent years.

In August 2020, for example, California experienced rolling blackouts during a heat wave. In February 2021, record-low temperatures caused millions to lose power in Texas.

Homes on a hillside.
Homes on a hillside during a blackout in Sausalito, Calif., in 2019. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


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