National & World News

Californians tired of doing their part during triple-digit heat

By COLBY BERMEL 07/23/2021 12:09 PM EDT Updated 07/23/2021 06:02 PM EDT

SACRAMENTO — 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.

Until just recently, the state had success with its "Flex Alert" system, which asks residents on

extremely hot days to stop running appliances and crank up their thermostats. Conservation helped

spare the grid during an especially tough stretch last Labor Day weekend, along with the days after two

nights of rolling blackouts last August. Demand dropped to such a low level on Aug. 17 that it had the

same effect as taking more than 3.7 million homes offline.

But there is a growing sense that the state is overusing Flex Alert, asking too frequently — and on days

when easing air conditioner usage is most uncomfortable. The tool was once used sparingly, just 21

times between 2009 and 2019, but state officials called 10 alerts last year alone, and five so far this


By July, residents appeared to show signs of fatigue. Demand did not drop at all on July 9 or 10,

despite two Flex Alerts, though it did dip on July 12, when temperatures were slightly cooler.

California Independent System Operator CEO Elliot Mainzer put it politely to reporters when

expressing his disappointment with the negligible conservation July 9. "I think that we are going to

need more response than we saw last night," Mainzer said the following day.

State officials are looking hard at behavioral patterns, incentives and messaging — and "the

appropriate pairing of economic signals and economic benefits," Mainzer said in an interview this

month, when asked what can be done to increase conservation.

That's a wonky way of saying that residents might have to be paid to reduce their energy usage.

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


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.

Some companies like OhmConnect are testing alternatives. The Oakland-based firm is giving out a

million free smart thermostats that it can remotely control during Flex Alert days to set at higher

temperatures. Customers are paid for their conservation, up to $450 annually, from funds that the

company receives from California's grid operator for converting their demand into what's known as a

virtual power plant.

"I think we've reached the end of people's casual ability or willingness to just help," CEO Cisco DeVries


If those incentives aren't enough, higher electricity prices during heat waves will be necessary, said

Stanford University law professor Michael Wara, who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program

at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Higher prices would likely spark an outcry, as it did in Texas when customers received four- and five-

figure energy bills after a winter storm earlier this year. The Lone Star State, however, has a largely

unregulated system that lacks California's consumer protections and market designs. But those discussions are for future years. In the coming months, the state is likely to find itself, yet

again, at the mercy of its residents. "We are where we are for this summer, and we are going to use

[Flex Alerts] and hope that people will help out," Borenstein said. "I've been beating this drum for 20


Two decades ago, Borenstein testified at the California State Senate after the Enron-caused electricity

crisis that led to the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis. Wearing a short-sleeved shirt with no tie, the

University of California, Berkeley professor recounted, he stressed the importance of lighter dress and

energy conservation.

This month, Borenstein and his colleagues did the same thing during the California grid operator's

board meeting — this time, in Hawaiian shirts. "By changing air conditioning settings substantially

and declaring a Hawaiian shirt summer," he said, "we hope you'll join us."