Blackouts: How Inaction has left Californians in the dark

By Brianna Cunliffe, P.E.N. chief investigative reporter

September 2, 2020

Few Californians were spared from the grueling heat wave that recently baked the state. Not only were they coping with life-threatening heat, they were forced to live with an energy regime that, when they most need support and stability, left them in the dark. 

With rolling blackouts that have rippled across the state, as many as 3.3 million Californian households were left without power as temperatures rocketed up past 100 degrees, reaching 130 in Death Valley. The political fallout was immense, with citizens demanding to know who’s to blame for this staggering systemic failure. Newsom said in an August 17th press conference: he is “ultimately accountable” for the rolling blackouts. 

Califonian electricity companies still rely on fossil fuels. Natural gas makes up 47 percent of portfolios, compared to only 36 percent renewables. Still, Energy Secretary Brouilette is trying to pin the blame for recent crises on the adoption of renewable energy sources, claiming California must backtrack away from innovative solar and wind. Elected officials are pointing to scientific evidence that says it’s just not true —  climate change driven by fossil fuel energy sources is exactly what was behind the increased demand that crippled the grid. 

To move California forward and to protect her citizens, Elected Officials to Protect California (EOCPA) is asking that Governor Gavin Newsom use his executive power to turn the situation around and seize this opportunity to fully transition to using 100 percent clean, renewable energy and start the process to phase out all fossil fuels production now. 

“We’re in a pandemic, we just had a week of three digit temperatures and apocalyptic fires. I’m thankful our governor is doing a heroic job in both areas. But while he’s had the foresight to make an emergency declaration for these fires and the pandemic, it’s high time he did the same for the climate crisis. He should use those powers to keep our lights on in the future, by investing now in more clean renewable energy sources to power our grid,”  asked San Obispo Mayor and Elected Officials to Protect California (EOPCA) Steering Committee Member Heidi Harmon.

“Governor, declare a state of emergency for the climate crisis now.”

Newsom canceled his marquee speech Democratic National Convention (DNC) because of the wildfires burning across California. He did make a brief appearance in a three-minute cell phone video, recorded in a forest near Watsonville where he visited an evacuation center. In it he encouraged Americans to take up the fight against climate change.

“Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California. This is an extraordinary moment in our history. Mother Nature has now joined this conversation around climate change. And so, we, too, need to advance that conversation anew,” said Newsom.

That conversation, according to experts, also has to address the increased health risks caused by climate change. People exposed to wildfire smoke have an increased vulnerability to Covid-19. Particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter is known as PM 2.5. Long-term exposure to air with even moderate concentrations of PM 2.5 can stress the heart, increase the buildup of plaques inside arteries, hinder liver function and increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. Short-term exposures can prompt an inflammatory response thereby hindering the body’s ability to fight infection, leading to increased hospitalizations for asthma and pneumonia during fire season and, according to research published this summer by the University of Montana and the U.S. Forest Service, more severe flu seasons afterwards.

This isn’t the first time EOPCA has urged Governor Newsom to take logical measures to ensure the health and well being of Californians. When constituents and fellow elected officials have demanded immediate action on urgent, life-or-death matters like ensuring adequate setbacks from drilling rigs to protect Californians’ health, Newsom has claimed he doesn’t possess the power to act. But Elected Officials to Protect America sees another way forward: they say he can act by declaring a state of emergency for the climate crisis.

Although he ran on a platform of banning fracking, Governor Newsom has granted 48 new permits under the political cover of the twin crises of the pandemic and racial justice reckonings. In the past, the California Legislature and Governor Newsom have claimed that it is the other branch’s prerogative to take action against fracking or setbacks. But according to local officials across the state, Californians are tired of the back-and-forth, blame, and promises that fail to materialize. Elected Officials to Protect California has been advocating for years to see the Governor take the lead.

“The governor invited people in his DNC video to come to Californina if they don’t think climate change is true. This fire season, and the pandemic are clear results of humans disrupting the environment — it’s time he took real action. Why isn’t he doing more to try and mitigate the factors that are creating the climate crisis? He has the power,” said Meghan Sahli-Wells former Culver City Mayor, and current Councilmember, Elected Officials to Protect California Co-Chair. “I’m proud to serve as Co-Chair of Elected Officials to Protect California, where more than 310 of us signed a letter to him to take action to halt permitting, put safety zones around existing wells and to phase out fossil fuel production once and for all.

“He could just declare a state of emergency, and make it so.”

It is now clear that California’s overreliance on out-of-state energy imports contributes to major power outages. Renewables not only alleviate crises —  they can provide unprecedented opportunities for growth. According to Forbes, with a transition to 100 percent clean energy, energy investors will see boosted value and new opportunities to innovate. 

Though California is the epicenter of these devastating developments, the entire country must also reckon with the realities of aging energy systems that fail to cope with modern-day demands. But there is good news: from the ingenious small-scale solutions from advocates like Carmen Ramírez, Esq., Mayor Pro Tem to initiatives that encompass the entire nation, it has never been more clear. Technology holds the capacity to create a more resilient, safer America, and it’s ready now. 

Before the Trump administration killed the project in an attempt to bail out the floundering coal industry, a ‘Supergrid’ promised to join east and west and advance our aging energy infrastructure by lightyears.  The weaving together of these structures would have provided insurance against blackouts, easy linkages that would have encouraged the growth of renewables, decreased emissions by 35 megatons and saved taxpayers billions.  Financially and morally, elected officials are saying that bold steps like these are imperative now.

 “I understand we are in a state of emergency with the pandemic and the fires — but when is Governor Newsom going to see he’s fueling the fires that cause the climate emergency?” asked Harmon. “One stroke of the pen issuing a state of emergency for the climate crisis and he could begin to phase out all fossil fuel production, and let California lead the fight to combat climate change. Economically it’s in our best interest too.”

Elected officials across the state are agreeing: Governor Newsom’s wake-up call is here. This time, it just may be loud enough that despite the powerful interests of big oil, the administration might take necessary action and embolden California’s transition away from fossil fuels to match the urgency of the climate crisis.