By Colby Bermel
Californians are tired of turning off their appliances in the summer heat.
For years, state officials have counted on residents to rescue the electric grid from collapse by sparing their energy use on the most blistering of days. But during a brutal July heat wave, Californians largely ignored repeat calls for conservation.
Many things go wrong for the system when temperatures soar, heightening the risk of rolling blackouts in the weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s September recall election. And state officials, under crushing pressure to keep the lights on in the meantime, now worry they have lost a key arrow in their quiver as heat waves continue to hammer Western states.
“I think we’re not taking it that seriously,” said Severin Borenstein, a member of the California grid operator’s board of governors. “This is not a mechanism that we can rely on as a primary mechanism for dealing with the bad situation that we’re in.”
California’s awkward transition to renewable energy points to the kinds of challenges that could complicate President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. As states add more solar energy, for example, they rely more heavily on fossil fuels in the evening after the sun sets and demand comes back on the system.
A 2018 study in the American Economic Journal found that extending payments to the residential sector is more effective at achieving conservation than “moral suasion.” One of the researchers, University of Chicago public policy professor Koichiro Ito, described the psychological concept of habituation, when there is less response to repeated stimuli — such as calls for conservation — over time.
Earlier this month, New York City sent a rare emergency alert to all residents asking for conservation, which did deliver. But it might not be as effective again next time, Ito said.