Story at a glance
- West Coast residents are likely to pay higher electricity costs over the next few decades as extreme weather events like droughts put pressure on energy resources, according to new research.
- As temperatures rise, demand for electricity increases along with it as people cool their homes, straining the supply of power.
- Even if more renewable energy sources are added, the grid will still be vulnerable to water and heat.
The price of electricity along the West Coast is likely to spike over the next few decades because of more extreme weather events, new research suggests. More severe heat waves and droughts are also likely to impact the reliability of the coast’s power grid.
In studies published last month in the journal Earth’s Future, researchers estimated future supply and demand of power on the West Coast under two separate scenarios: one where excessive heat stemming from climate change strains the supply of power, and one where the grid moves toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar, while the climate follows historic trends.
In the first study, computer models simulated the impacts of climate change on the power grid in California and the Pacific Northwest, evaluating the grid’s reliability and price under 11 different climate scenarios between 2030 and 2060.
Researchers found an increased risk of power blackouts in the summer and early fall, largely driven by extreme heat in California, which creates high demand for power as people cool their homes.
“As it gets hotter and hotter and hotter, and demand for electricity gets higher, we expect the grid to fail,” Jordan Kern, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of forestry and environment resources at North Carolina State University, said in a news release. “Those extreme heat events are going to become much more severe.”
California recorded its hottest decade on record between 2010 and 2019, and 599 deaths were attributed to heat exposure over the same time period, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of state data.
Rising temperatures in the Golden State will also impact the price and supply of power in places like Oregon and Washington State, with which it has historically shared power.
“If, and that’s a big ‘if,’ historic exchanges of electricity continue, and California has a high demand for electricity because of heat, it could cause the Pacific Northwest to run out of electricity, as they won’t be able to meet their own demand,” Kern said.
Still, shortages are likely to be relatively rare occurrences, according to the study, and the maximum “worst-case scenario” was 72 hours of power supply shortages over 31 years.
In the second study, the price of power was projected through 2050 should more renewable energy sources be added to the grid. Scenarios in this study included one with more batteries added to store power, one in which more people drove electric vehicles, and two in which a mix of solar and wind power were utilized.
In each scenario, electricity costs were estimated using 100 years of both normal and extreme weather events that may occur under historic climate conditions – absent additional warming.
But even with the deployment of more renewable energy sources, researchers found that electricity costs are still influenced by extreme weather events like droughts, as the West Coast relies heavily on hydropower.
“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. “Adding renewable energy does not change the very worst or best year, but it kind of shifts things around in the middle.”
Kern added that his and his colleagues’ projected reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over each scenario were “conservative,” with their models recording up to 50 percent decarbonization through 2050. Most of the West Coast has set more ambitious targets.
“Our key finding was that as the grid decarbonizes, you are still going to be left with that vulnerability to water and heat,” Kerns said. “This is a system that can’t run away from that.”
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