Electrification and California’s Climate Emergency: Heat Wave Edition

Editor's note: Last year, during the wildfires, my colleague Rachel Golden wrote a piece highlighting some ways that beneficial building electrification can help communities be more resilient in the face of climate change. We’re refreshing that piece here, with some added context about heat waves and how electrification can help California better manage the more extreme heat waves of the future. 

Climate change is here. Over the last two weeks, California and much of the western US have been gripped by the kind of heat waves and wildfires scientists have long warned would result from burning fossil fuels. California is especially vulnerable to climate change. Each form of disaster brings its own set of harms, challenges, and adaptation requirements. 

With this heat wave and the wildfires, the health toll and other impacts are not fully understood yet, and may not be for some time to come. While these crises unfold, much of the discussion right now is about the electric grid, air conditioning, and power reliability. California agencies, like the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and our grid manager, the Independent System Operator (CAISO), have launched investigations into the blackouts. There’s a lot that we still don’t know, but officials have already confirmed that renewable energy was not part of the problem. In fact, California’s rooftop solar and wind power each likely helped prevent much larger blackouts. 

The extreme weather events California is living through -- first the historic heat wave (along with the resulting blackouts) and now the horrifying wildfires, are a serious warning of what’s to come if we don’t take swift action to phase out fossil fuels. 

Principally, the heat wave and resulting rolling blackouts are a story about climate change and the electricity grid. Any policy response to these latest blackouts must focus on (1) how fast we can scale up clean energy to phase out fossil fuels while (2) managing the electric grid and maintaining reliable service and (3) increasing climate resiliency. Achieving these goals requires a much more proactive approach, and one tool is building electrification. 

Here’s how building electrification can play a critical role in supporting a more reliable grid while combating climate change: 

1) Beneficial electrification of buildings reduces electricity demand in the summer months and will help us ride out hotter and longer heat waves.

Many Californians lack air conditioning, especially low-income Californians, renters, and those of us in more temperate coastal areas. Many who do have air conditioning have very inefficient models and see painfully high bills in the long summer months. As temperatures flare, demand for power skyrockets and the grid strains.

Electrification can help. While heat pumps are commonly understood as a cleaner and more efficient alternative to a gas or propane furnace, high-efficiency heat pumps also provide the most efficient cooling system. During a heat wave, like this one, more efficient cooling means less strain on the grid, fewer blackouts -- and lower electric bills. 

2) Electrification increases reliability, especially in wildfire-prone areas.  

Last fall, upwards of 3 million people (800,000 customers) had electrical service suspended to mitigate the risk of wildfires in Northern California. Yes, electric appliances are vulnerable to power outages, but so are most modern gas appliances like tankless water heaters, furnaces, dryers, stoves, and ovens. In fact, gas appliances are more vulnerable to outages since they are dependent on two infrastructure systems. It's going to be easier and more cost-effective to make one expansive energy infrastructure resilient and hardened to climate change than to do it with two. We’ve got no time to waste when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels, so let’s pick the clean energy infrastructure of the future and phase out the dirty energy infrastructure of the past. 

To enhance reliability and resilience in wildfire-prone areas, California will need to invest in more than grid hardening and safety, including microgrids and distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, storage, and heat pump water heaters. As those resources come online, efficient, weatherized homes and heat pumps will help provide the load shifting and thermal storage helpful to grid operators managing high demand clean energy to reliably and safely power and heat our homes. Several studies have found that electric heat pumps are an untapped storage and load shifting resource. For more on this point, here’s an excellent blog from NRDC that upacks this concept.

3) The gas system is vulnerable, especially to climate change and natural disasters.  

California has over 150,000 miles of gas pipelines crisscrossing the state. This gas system does not provide a reliable fuel source, as the industry claims. Gas infrastructure is aging and vulnerable, requires massive and costly upgrades, and will not be able to withstand the erratic and intensifying impacts of climate change.  

The gas system already has an abysmal safety record: According to the US Pipeline Hazardous Materials Association, over the past five years, roughly every four days there was a gas pipeline incident that killed someone, sent someone to the hospital, or caused a fire or explosion. We can expect this system to be even more risky as the impacts of climate change increase.

The California Energy Commission warns that much of California’s gas system -- particularly pipelines along the state’s waterways and coasts -- is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The report describes how sea level rise, storms, flooding and associated erosion, can lead to pipes becoming inundated with water, “cracking, fracturing or buckling”, and becoming inoperable. TL;DR: Storms and other manifestations of climate change are expected to be catastrophic to California’s gas infrastructure.  

The gas system also takes 30 times longer to restore than the electric system after natural disasters. After an earthquake, for example,it takes about three days to restore electricity to 60 percent of customers. But it can take over 2 months to restore gas service to that same portion of customers.

The path ahead

There are plenty of reasons to pursue electrification. Cities and state agencies across the nation are taking steps to phase out gas in homes and building, motivated by the indisputable health, safety, and climate benefits of  shifting from gas to all-electric, clean energy buildings. However, too often overlooked is why electrification is needed for climate resiliency and adaptation.  

Absent policy intervention, electrification will not happen in time to help us stave off or be resilient to the climate crisis. And without immediate planning and targeted policies, electrification will not happen in an equitable and just manner that protects or prioritizes workers of low-income people. What does policy intervention look like? Here are a few places to start. 

  • Stop making the problem worse: The CEC should move now to ensure new construction is all-electric. Expanded funding for programs like BUILD will help support new clean construction in environmental justice communities. 

  • Expand access to efficient air conditioning: Too many people in California don’t have access to air-conditioning. Inefficient cooling both strains the grid and raises energy bills. As California warms, we need expanded efficiency programs that increase deployment of heat pumps, helping people replace their inefficient AC units while increasing access for those without cooling now. 

  • A transition plan for fossil fuels: On this last point, there is some hope. The California Air Resources Board released a report last week that proposes some benchmarks for phasing out fossil fuels. For buildings, it means ending the sale of fossil appliances in 2030. Meanwhile, the CPUC has launched a docket to plan the gas transition. We don’t have any time to waste, and we don’t have a lot of wiggle room for mistakes. California needs a more deliberate, granular plan with the kinds of benchmarks that connect the decisions we’re making now to a plan that meets what the brutal science of climate change demands. 

We can act (i.e., electrify) to stop climate change, and in the process we can become more resilient to it, helping California make it through the next heat wave or wildfire in greater comfort with less strain on the grid. As the climate crisis grows, we can still mitigate the worst impacts, while adapting to foregone changes. We know what we need to do, and it’s time to get to work.