We were still talking about heat waves affecting the European continent and potentially shaping the continent’s future. Then, the focus switched to Pakistan’s devastating floods and California’s last heat wave, which could spark big fires such as the ones all across Southern Europe.
The last heatwave to hit the US West Coast around Labor Day has brought new all-time heat records across California. Few could have predicted, though, that the State could prevent major blackouts with overwhelming coordination between authorities and the choice of most of its population, who decided to follow electricity consumption guidelines during critical moments.
All California authorities could do at the event’s peak on Tuesday, September 7, was to issue a “Level 3” emergency alert through cell phone carriers that appeared on everybody’s smartphone display —the most populated and wealthiest State in the world’s wealthiest country was to recommend the population to “turn off nonessential power now” to “avoid blackouts.”
Is personal responsibility scalable?
Contrary to stereotypes such as the rise of NIMBYism and other attitudes associated with a rather reductionistic and entitled perception of individualism, the alert message pushed as smartphone notification on the early evening of Tuesday coincided with a steep decrease in electricity consumption across the State, which prevented the expected power interruption as workers headed back home after working hours.
On Wednesday 7th, the California heat dome had past its “apex,” yet heat alerts and mitigation measures in schools and the most affected workspaces remained in place due to “extremely high” power demand, fire risk, and related local events such as sudden, hammering desert downpours like the one experienced on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4 in Santa Clarita. Before the storm, the area had hit almost 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) before experiencing a severe thunderstorm with wind gusts of over 60 mph (100 kph), floods, and lightning).
Homes in Palo Alto and other Santa Clara County towns experienced a short-lived blackout in the early morning of Tuesday the 7th. A little later, at 10.00 AM, Apple celebrated its traditional September product event one week earlier than expected.
Meanwhile, some used the heatwave to test their memes, such as the picture of a Tesla owner using a gas generator to charge his car “because the grid is overloaded,” which enables responses at odds with the meme’s irony reminding others of the existence of solar panels, home battery storage, and Tesla Supercharger stations never too far when it comes to coastal California. Pop culture seems to be done with the now classic cartoon dog stating “this is fine” while patiently sitting in a house on fire.
A priority by force
A Mediterranean, predictive weather all year round was among the California Dream’s main attractions. Summer heat in some parts of the State’s dry interior contrast with the Bay Area’s famous mild summer days, when the fog coming into the Bay from the Pacific prevents sunlight from reaching the intensity experienced by towns just some miles beyond this microclimate influence (Mark Twain’s coolest winter was summer in San Francisco, a hyperbole with some true to it). Yet the heat dome of early September 2022 didn’t space Silicon Valley or even the fog perimeter.
The “Level 3” alert experienced in the Bay Area could not compare with the widespread highs over 110 Fahrenheit across the State, especially in areas far from the ocean’s climate influence: at the time of the “Level 3” alert on Tuesday a little before 6 PM, Sacramento was bearing a suffocating 116 degrees (over 46 Celsius), which prompted the cancellation of outdoor work and sports activities.
As heatwaves become more intense and frequent, local adaptation to prevent their most dangerous effects is finally a forced priority, yet local administrations are still taking a defensive approach when it gets dangerously hot.
Extreme heat will also occur across any latitude and in any season, and populations that enjoy mild summers will be incentivized to improve insulation in buildings, protect urban greenery, or install air conditioning systems.
Transitioning from reactive to proactive strategies
But it will take a different approach and determination to turn the current reactive strategies, limited to recommendations for the population to avoid health risks such as heat strokes, blackouts, or fires, into more proactive ones. California’s Public Health department issued an alert recommending strategies through Wednesday, 9/7.
One of them (which read: If possible, stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as you can”) wouldn’t have worked during a generalized blackout, which could happen in a region that knows the limitations of its grid, as PG&e, an investor-owned utility with publicly traded stock, has normalized intermittencies with protocols such as Public Safety Power Shutoffs (to prevent electricity from sparking wildfires in hot, dry, windy days) or “rotating outages.”
No individual strategies for climate mitigation can prevent some of the trends that, for example, are transforming the weather in the aridest zones of California’s Central Valley into a whole summer season with usual storms created by moisture discharges when heat domes build-up, a phenomenon familiar to Arizonans and other areas of the US Southwest during the so-called summer “monsoon season.”
The challenges that California’s power grid faces are not going away anytime soon, as heatwaves and fires are more frequent and spread well beyond the dryest months; as it has historically happened in economic, regulatory, and consumption matters, what California does to confront such issues will influence the United States and beyond. And, as mitigation measures demand resources for little immediate, easy-to-measure outcomes, the potential collision with deeply ingrained beliefs in personal freedom could amplify. Instead of protecting local communities, California’s ballot initiative process could be instrumentalized to block any funding that would try to adapt the State to heat, drought, and megafires.
The trees you can plant
As the US prepares to return to the moon, a quote by key person in the moon landing, JFK, resonates when several crises demand more sacrifice (or delayed gratification) than immediate reward: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
The US West particularities —among them, the scope of suburban living relying on single-family housing— represents both a challenge and opportunity to face the risk of extreme events: suburban areas rely on small communities and homeowners to help reduce effects such as heat-island epicenters during heat waves.
Planting and maintaining trees and other vegetation helps reduce local heat and lowers both surface and air temperatures. Street trees, front yard and backyard gardens, provide shade and habitat to species that can help control pests or even boost moisture and water absorbed by the soil.
If healthy, drought-resistant plants and gardens shade streets and homes and lower perceived temperature, reducing the need for air conditioning. With a heat-proven grid or full adoption of off-grid and local energy storage, the local effect of plants may seem marginal; on the contrary, in the event of rolling blackouts, planned or not, access to local vegetation and the cooling through evapotranspiration that it causes could be the difference between a bearable heat wave event and a life-threatening crisis (especially for the most vulnerable: the elderly, toddlers, the sick, and poor inhabitants of treeless areas prone to amplifying heat).
The single biggest change: painting/installing a lighter roof
Installing energy-efficient appliances and equipment can both save money in the context of inflation and help decrease the risk of blackouts, though the advantages of energy efficiency equipment relying on electricity turn marginal or even nonexistent when extreme events (a generalized blackout due to heat, fires, an earthquake, etc.) disrupt the grid.
What to do, then? Several countries and US States subsidize home improvements that provide better insulation, like the California “weatherization” program. Properly insulating old houses can be prohibitively expensive, though there’s another home improvement with as much impact as providing air sealing standards for energy-efficient homes: installing lighter-colored, reflective, or green roofs. A study from Australia’s University of New South Wales concluded that light and reflective roofs could cool down the interior of a building up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit.
Journalist and environmental vulgarizer Eric Scigliano recently praised the rather simple —and potentially affordable— decision of getting a white(r) roof. In an article for The Atlantic, Scigliano confirms what Kirsten and I have already experienced when visiting family (sometimes for weeks at a time) in the Pacific Northwest during summer: as hot days get hotter, most of the oldish balloon-framed homes in cities like Seattle become unbearable hot, to the point that familiar past remedies (cross-ventilation, a fan, small swamp cooler) won’t do the job as the expected breeze that will cool things down delays its appearance.
The region shares other concerns with California: from 2015 onwards, heat waves and forest fires have increased to the point of making the air “unbreathable as well as unbearable.” The author explains how particular locations, like his bedroom, located on the sunny west side, “began to feel like an oven” on summer afternoons and evenings. Until Scigliano decided to replace the clapped-out roof, that is.
Plant it, transform it, or just paint it light
A little Odyssey finding the right color and performance of new asphalt shingles did not deter him from finally succeeding with the desired model and performance. What shocks Scigliano (and has also raised my curiosity when I visit Seattle in summer) is the absolute absence of light-shingled roofs in the area:
“All this despite the fact that light shingles tend to last longer than dark ones; they stretch, contract, and crack less in the heat,” he adds.
Dark roofs in good condition could be painted in lighter colors with similar weather-proof performance, possibly the most affordable action any homeowner could take to reduce sun radiation and heat partially leaking into the house, not matter how good the insulation.
Other actions overseen by air-conditioning users are those referred to passive cooling through installing (and properly using) shades in all exterior openings (cardboard or drapes can work as well in emergencies). Window coverings like shutters or retractable awnings repel radiation effectively. But, as experts remind us, we can even use thick cardboard covered in aluminum foil pressed against the window frame to reflect direct sunlight.
Rooftop gardens can be costly, though plant pots with adequate leafy species can be enough to reduce direct sunlight and radiation. Opening all windows and doors as soon as it begins cooling down during hot days in dry heat areas allows cooler night air to replace the heat concentrated during the day. To facilitate this air interchange in homes or buildings with two or more stories, it’s key to channel rising hot air to the outside as it ascends the building.
The best moment to turn on a fan (providing there’s no blackout or a house that includes off-grid autonomy) when cooler air enters a building; to boost its performance, it’s preferable to install a fan in windows overlooking leafy gardens and not treeless, busy roadways (in such cases, window air conditioners and swamp coolers with insulation around them can help to lower the temperature). Attic ventilators or fans speed up the heat interchange process during the night.
Each material has different thermal properties: brick and mortar, tile, dry walls, straw bale walls, or alternatives like hempcrete ones will help interiors feel cold after a night’s cool air.
Building scientists recommend shutting off and darkening the house interior as much as possible as soon as the morning starts warming up. Optimal passive cooling benefits from plants, reflective shutters, and shades, so the morning radiation outside doesn’t radiate into the interior.