California facing power outages

California has had to deal with gigantic fires in recent days linked to a historic heatwave, with temperatures in some places exceeding 50 degrees. More than 120,000 hectares have been devoured by the flames, which have already claimed two lives, and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes.

→ READ. California, new epicenter of the pandemic

To make matters worse, more than 200,000 Californians have been confronted every evening for the past week with power cuts that last at least an hour. This is a first for twenty years, and it relegates the richest state in the United States to the rank of emerging country.

These cuts were decided by PG & E, the main supplier to the State, which had been blamed in recent years for the dilapidated state of its power lines. They are the source of most of the major fires that have ravaged the region in recent years.

But this time it is simply a question of preventing the network from collapsing, while the production of electricity is far below demand. So much so that the state governor, Gavin Newsom, has called on consumers to reduce the use of their devices between 3 and 10 p.m. Even Tesla has advised users of its electric cars to limit their travel and not to recharge their batteries at home.

Wind and solar are struggling

The responsibility for this situation lies, in large part, in the large part given to renewable energies, mainly solar (inefficient at night) and wind turbines (which do not turn when there is no wind), without that other controllable resources, coal, gas and fuel oil for thermal power stations as well as nuclear power, can take over.

California is at the forefront in the fight against global warming, with the ambition to be 100% green energy by 2045. The intermediate stages plan to reach 50% in 2026 and 60% in 2030. Currently, renewable energy already accounts for a large third of electricity production, with the largest wind farms and solar farms in the United States.

Strong demand for air conditioning

The problem is that demand peaks significantly, especially when the weather is very hot. Right now, air conditioning accounts for up to 70% of electricity demand in California, compared to 15% on average over the year.

To remedy the intermittence of renewables, the available gas power stations are operating at full capacity, providing 50% of production. But, bad luck, two of them are currently in maintenance. Difficult to appeal to coal plants. Most have ceased to operate in California or are in the process of shutting down.

→ EXPLANATION. Air conditioning and ventilation in the Covid-19 era

Nuclear power is only able to provide barely 10% of needs. And after the closure of two reactors in San Diego in 2012, the last power station in the state, Diablo Canyon, is due to shut down in 2025. The authorities are highlighting the seismic risks. Dams cannot be called to the rescue either. Their levels are at their lowest due to chronic drought.

A very poorly interconnected country

Californians cannot, or very little, bring in electricity from neighboring states. The situation is also very complicated in Nevada, but above all the American electricity network has become very obsolete and suffers from a glaring lack of interconnections, despite its 700,000 kilometers of high voltage lines. As astonishing as it may sound, it is therefore extremely complicated to bring current from the east coast to the west coast, and vice versa.

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