Publishers View: Heat

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Last year’s heat waves – peaking at a scorching 106 degrees in San Francisco in the fall – may be the new normal.  There’s nothing we can do about whatever natural temperature patterns are at play, and little reason to believe that humans’ contributions to weather changes will diminish much, at least in the remaining lifetimes of current senior citizens. 

State policies give California a shot at reaching a lower greenhouse gas emission equilibrium a couple of decades from now.  However, countervailing forces – more frequent, devastating, carbon-releasing wildfires; coal-burning generating stations in China and India; the world’s fossil fuel-dominated transportation system – will likely overwhelm efforts by ours, other states and nations until deep into this century.

Chances are the years ahead will be hotter, with recurrent temperature spikes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That in turn will induce increasing numbers of households to purchase fans, and, ultimately, air conditioning.  Presently, only about one in ten Bay Area homes have central air.  Perhaps one-third or more of new residences being built are outfitted with such equipment, with an unknown, but likely growing, number of existing households installing window, wall, or central units.

Increased air conditioning load translates into higher demand for electricity.  It’s a deal with the devil.  Energy use makes us more comfortable – cooler – but, depending on what resources are used to generate electricity, can contribute to creating the conditions that cause our discomfort and the planet’s pain; greenhouse gas emissions.  California’s grid partially ameliorates the pernicious side of this deal because it’s gradually being dominated by solar and other renewable generation.  But when the sun slides down the horizon natural gas power plants are fired up to replace photovoltaics, pumping out a steady stream of polluting emissions. 

To avoid getting gas, new, more benign resources need to be developed:  price signals that create incentives for technology-enabled management of twilight “needle peaks” in electricity demand; ever more efficient lighting and appliances; and power storage, hopefully at least in part in the form of growing electric vehicle fleets, which, while increasing demand for electricity, can also serve as standby voltage when they’re plugged in.  While California can’t directly change the weather, the Golden State can show the world how, collectively, we may be able to economically and equitably do so.

San Francisco has access to another resource that could both forestall natural gas use and improve the City’s energy resiliency in the aftermath of neighborhood-specific or regional disruptions.  There’s upwards of 1,000 megawatts of “standby” generators – enough to cover San Francisco’s total electricity demand on a mild day – located at hospitals, college campuses, research institutions, internet server farms, and other large facilities.  These generators, mostly natural gas-powered, are almost always idle, waiting for an outage to occur, typically caused by localized problems with the utility distribution system, rather than largescale transmission or generation failures. 

These resources could be replaced with more benign assets, such as batteries, pumped or ice storage, or even vehicle charging.  Innovative network technology could be deployed to create access to them when they’re not needed by their owners, but are by the grid, with the resulting payment flow financing the shift to clean power.  Such a strategy would serve to tighten up San Francisco’s energy ship in anticipation of the rougher waves ahead, as well as provide a resource to replace natural gas at sunset.

It’s going to get hotter.  To keep our cool, we’ll need to get ever more thoughtfully clever.