Western US power grids are straining to keep up as sweltering heatwaves persist

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  • Sweltering heatwaves in the Western US are straining power grids.

  • Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, asking residents to reduce energy use.

  • Grid operators say the grid is in better shape to withstand surging demands than in previous years.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency on Thursday as its power grid struggles to match rising demand. Heat waves continue to ravage the region, pushing temperatures as high as 107 degrees Fahrenheit in Salt Lake City.

The California Independent System Operator (California ISO), the corporation in charge of running California's electric grid, asked residents on Thursday to conserve electricity to avoid the rolling blackouts that happened in 2020.

Brandon Buckingham, a meteorologist at AccuWeather, told Insider that the heat is exacerbated due to ongoing drought conditions.

"The continued heat and dryness will undoubtedly have a negative impact on livelihoods across the western United States," Buckingham said. "Some impacts include (but are not limited to): worsening drought conditions, more frequent and more intense wildfires, increased energy demand for cooling, rolling blackouts due to overuse of power grid, water-use restrictions, increased difficulties for area farmers."

Despite the emergency declaration on Thursday, California ISO CEO Elliot Mainzer said the western power grid has since been upgraded to withstand the changing conditions.

"We've characterized the situation going into this summer as guarded optimism," Manzier told the AP. "We do think that we are in a generally better position than last summer."

North America's power transmission system is made up of two major and three minor power grids, or interconnections. The entire west coast of the US and surrounding states, for example, are a part of the "Western Interconnection" that is regulated by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) and the Western Governors' Association.

According to a 2016 "State of the Interconnection" presentation from the WECC, approximately 23% of the Western Interconnection's power in 2015 came from hydropower generators, a fuel source but one that can quickly deplete in high heat and drought condition.

A 2020 study suggests that the Western Interconnection needs to up its photovoltaic (solar), natural gas, and other gas-powered generators to make up for any hydropower losses due to drought.

Rachel Sherrard, communications coordinator for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, confirmed to Insider that the Western Interconnection has had to adapt to fit the rigors of climate change.

"The grid is transforming to one with more variable and weather-dependent generation resources and increased interdependencies with the distribution system," Sherrard said.

"Operating this new grid is more complex, and planners and resource policymakers need to ensure there is sufficient flexible generation with supporting fuel infrastructure and transmission."

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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