Gavin Newsom faces new challenge with rising temperatures in California

·6 min read

Story at a glance

  • Large swaths of California experienced triple-digit temperatures since the unprecedented September heat wave kicked off just before Labor Day Weekend.

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the state’s grid operator, the California Independent System Operator (ISO), urged residents to help conserve power for more than a week by keeping thermostats at 78 degrees or higher and to avoid using major appliances or charging electric vehicles.

  • Despite avoiding rolling blackouts, Newsom and the state’s grid operator were hit with criticism from some Republican lawmakers and organizations who characterized the power situation as a failure of progressive policies.

A record-smashing heat wave that blanketed much of California this week is presenting a new challenge to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) just as talk picks up about the possibility he could run for the White House in 2024.

California and Newsom passed an initial test — keeping the lights and power on despite triple-digit temperatures covering much of the state that pushed the state’s electrical grid to its limits.

But that didn’t stop Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), another potential presidential contender who Newsom has used as a GOP foil this summer, from taking a shot.

“I hear a lot of people chirping about Florida from California. They’re so worried about Florida. They can’t even keep the power on in California, are you kidding me?” DeSantis said.

Republicans also hit Newsom on the state’s plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. Noting the California Independent System’s plea for state residents to avoid charging electric cars at certain peak hours.

“I kind of feel like they’re holding things together with bandaids right now. They just extended the Diable nuclear power plant as well. I think that was a common sense thing that they needed to do. So I think they’re trying to keep it all together, but it’s really a lot of misplaced investment over decades and over reliance on wind and solar, in particular, that’s kind of led to this situation,” Derrick Morgan, vice president of conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, told Changing America.

“I think it’s a cautionary tale that pursuing policies that are in the Green New Deal, or going along that continuum, can be a real danger,” Morgan added.

Newsom in recent days has pushed back against his critics, arguing the state has never seen such extreme heat for such an extended period of time.

He said Wednesday the state will need to keep improving efforts to deal with climate change, but argued actions the state has taken in the last two years, including increasing battery storage and extending lifetimes of backup generators, is what kept the power on.

“Had we not done what we’ve done in the last two years we would have had rolling blackouts over the last week,” Newsom said Wednesday.

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Last week’s near crisis highlighted California’s delicate balancing act of phasing out fossil fuels while keeping the grid reliably functioning in the face of extreme weather events that demand more power.

The state saw temperature records broken in cities stretching from the Bay Area to south of Los Angeles. Sacramento hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday, breaking the previous all-time record high of 114 set in 1925.

The state only narrowly averted ordering rolling blackouts Tuesday, a method involving cutting power to some areas to save energy for others, during the most intense phase of the heat wave as Californians heeded calls to cut back on power use. The state was also forced to activate generators fueled by natural gas. ISO reported statewide power demand hit 52,061 megawatts, a record for California.

California has taken some of the most aggressive actions in the country to cut out its reliance on fossil fuels and ramp up the use of renewable energy such as wind and solar. Those steps, to a degree, have elevated Newsom on the political stage as Democrats look for political leaders on climate change.

But the problems are also fodder for Republicans to use to tarnish Newsom and his policies.

California Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher said the risk of rolling blackouts is a result of failed Democratic policies and said the state was “lucky” to get through Tuesday without ordered blackouts.

The state has laid out plans to get all of its power from renewable sources by 2045, an ambitious goal as electricity demand is expected to increase and heat waves are forecast to hit with more frequency and intensity. Utilities are working to scale up renewable energy sources as well as battery storage for use when the sun is down.

According to ISO CEO and President Elliot Mainzer, California put nearly 8,000 megawatts of clean energy resources on the grid in the last two years, including more than 3,300 megawatts of lithium-ion batteries.

Michael Colvin, director of the California Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, credited California’s fleet of battery storage with helping to avert blackouts.

“There are two reasons in particular why we were able to avoid rolling blackouts, because it got very close. The first one was that California customers themselves showed up,” Colvin said.

“The second hero of the story in my opinion is what I would call virtual power plants, or the battery storage facilities.”

It’s far from clear Newsom will run for president — especially since President Biden is still planning to do so.

But Biden’s age — he would turn 81 weeks after election day in 2024 — and his low approval ratings have raised questions about whether he’d change his mind. If Biden opts out, it’s likely to lead to a wide-open race that would almost certainly include Vice President Harris, another Californian.

Newsom drew attention over the summer when he ran a television ad in Florida that urged state residents to come to California.

“Freedom, it’s under attack in your state. Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors,” Newsom said in the ad, which carried images of both DeSantis and former President Trump.

“I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight. Or join us in California, where we still believe in freedom — freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate and the freedom to love.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Colvin, who focuses on strategies to transition California to clean energy, said the recent heat wave is unusual as it impacted the majority of the state for a prolonged period of time. He says there’s typically more flexibility during heat waves as power can be redirected for air conditioning to different regions that need it.

“California knows how to handle a hot day. We have plenty of power to be able to do that. But just like people, the electric grid itself needs to cool off, you end up running into operational problems and failures if you have multiple hot days in a row with no sort of night time relief to try and cool some things off,” he added.

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