Image via CalEPA

Power Outages Due to Aliso Canyon Gas Failure: A Climate Change Perspective

Posted by on April 7, 2016

Immediate action is needed to prepare for projected power outages this summer.

An action plan released by four state and regional agencies suggests the Los Angeles region will face as many as 14 days of power outages this summer and an additional eight to 18 days later in 2016 as a result of the Aliso Canyon gas leak and subsequent shutdown of the facility.

This will be the third way Angelenos have been harmed by the Aliso Canyon disaster. First, nearby residents were displaced, then there’s the damage from greenhouse gas pollution. Now, Angelenos can expect days without power, putting the public at risk for health impacts.

The report by The California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission, California Independent System Operator, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, proposes ways to reduce — but not eliminate — the risk of gas shortages that could interrupt electrical service to utility customers across Los Angeles. Before the disaster six months ago, the Aliso Canyon facility provided natural gas to nearly 20 power plants in Los Angeles County.

This is more than simply inconvenience — the outages will likely put vulnerable people at risk for health impacts. That this report is released the same week that the White House released its new report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” underscores the need to take steps to protect the public. Extreme heat days and prolonged heat waves put the public at risk for more premature deaths and an increase in chronic and acute cardiovascular and respiratory symptoms. 2015 had the highest temperatures since records began being taken in 1880, 2016 has the potential to again set new high average temperatures, and climate scientists have calculated a 3-6°F warming trend for the Los Angeles region between the years of 2040-2060.

In the best of times, higher temperature events strain the electricity grid. This summer, we can expect the grid to routinely be at a breaking point. With an increase in the number of extreme heat days or prolonged heat waves, we will certainly face blackouts. To better prepare for hotter temperatures and the expectation of blackouts that will knock out any electrical cooling capacity for unknown stretches, there are a number of short-term actions we need to take.

Action #1 – Notification. The ability to project, monitor, and then warn the public is vital. We need to use up-to-date vulnerability risk assessments and heat health warning systems to identify vulnerable populations. We need the ability to project extreme heat as well as measure the effects of high temperatures, relative humidity, and air-mass type. And then we need to deploy public health and emergency management teams to notify these most vulnerable sectors of Los Angeles.

Action #2 – Protection. Once an extreme heat event has begun, several mitigating actions can be taken to protect the public, starting with social-connectedness programs in which families, friends, and neighbors are instructed to check in with one another. We also need to expand accessibility to cooling centers and increase emergency medical services both during daytime and nighttime.

Action #3 – Planning. The potential for blackouts increases the need to update our energy systems and ratchet down consumption. Increasing distributed generating capacity such as rooftop solar and implementing energy efficiency measures to lower the amount of energy consumed can help protect against outages. Currently there are a number of programs available at the state and local level but more could be done.

We know that high heat is exacerbated by the urban heat island effect (UHI), a phenomenon where cities are 2-6°F hotter than the surrounding rural areas due the lack of vegetation and paved surfaces that absorb radiant energy from the sun before releasing it back into the air as heat. UHI can be offset by the use of cool surfaces such as cool roofs and cool pavements which reflect instead of absorb sunlight. In 2015, Los Angeles became the first city to require cool roofs on all new residential construction as well as re-roofs when over half the roof is being replaced. Expanding the urban tree canopy and vegetation can also aid in reducing UHI by shading surfaces from the sun’s rays and acting as a natural air-conditioner through evaporative cooling.