Overview

California's electric grid crisis of September 6th proved that individual actions do make a difference. A truly resilient climate strategy requires politicians and business leaders to back their calls for sacrifice with real incentives for all.

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At 5:45 pm on September 6th, Californians’ phones screamed with an emergency text: Conserve energy now to protect public health and safety. Extreme heat is straining the state energy grid. Power interruptions may occur unless you take action.

Over the next few hours, millions of individuals across the Golden State unplugged cars and appliances, adjusted A/C settings, and delayed laundry and dish cycles. These small actions cut total electricity demand by two gigawatts (two billion watts), just enough to spare communities from rolling blackouts. 

These decisions were praised, even as the Governor said he hoped the state would never have to make such a request again. His statement conveyed respect for citizens who depend on their elected officials to deliver basic services—and a terse expectation that state authorities will not force the government to rely on its people in that way again.

But the incident had precedent, and similar conditions—a record-breaking heat wave, an aging grid in transition—will persist for years to come. 

The state may not want to rely on mass sacrifice, but the fact that it does is not new, nor is its lack of equitable compensation. California’s power sector is rocketing toward a major upgrade, and the conditions exist to make it not just reliable but equitable. Under various models, and thanks to a variety of technologies, businesses are paid to reduce their power use upon request.

But shouldn’t the citizens who are already struggling across an ever-widening wealth gap yet comply in crisis be compensated as well? 

The YOU imperative

American patriotism famously uses the language of demand. Consider Smokey the Bear and Uncle Sam: “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires,” and “I Want YOU For U.S. Army.” Although Uncle Sam was originally proposed with a question – “What Are You Doing For Preparedness?” – nineteenth-century editors instead chose to represent the American government with a fierce, personalized command. This attitude remains at the core of governance. If California’s Office of Emergency Services translated its text into a GIF it would be an image of Uncle Sam jabbing his fingers through the phone screen and glowering over the words, “Only YOU Can Save The Grid.”

As personalized commands become more frequent in a degrading yet expensive state, the level of public response will naturally decline and handicap the state’s ability to act – a risk that authorities have already acknowledged. Climate issues are especially vulnerable because the responsibility and potential impact of one person is hard to see. Demanding that state agencies do better will only go so far. To really improve its climate resilience this decade California’s government must formalize the public’s role in its climate-response strategy with a clear set of universally-applicable incentives.

If we can reward companies, we can reward people

As Canary Media expertly details, the energy sector’s incentive models can be adapted for a more equitable power management system. Today, energy-intensive businesses such as factories, utilities, and solar farms can earn money each time they reduce their electricity demand in response to an emergency alert. In dire situations, the rebate can be significant: On September 6th, a megawatt of power sold for approximately 10 times its usual price. 

But there is no mechanism for compensating the average citizen who takes action at home. While smart thermostats and smart chargers are deployed in tens of thousands of Californian homes, these technologies have been integrated into utility rebate programs in such a cumbersome fashion that subscribed resources have actually declined. And then there are the millions of residences where these technologies are not present due to location, tenant income or ownership status. These homes may well have been part of the emergency response that saved the state on September 6th, but there is no means for recognizing and rewarding that action. This perpetuates the notion that a single person’s efforts are too minuscule to matter.

California may be a leader in introducing new tech, but its struggles in distributing it efficiently and equitably are preventing it from achieving the resilience and public solidarity that it needs to navigate the grid transition over the coming decades. As California invests billions in upgrading and decarbonizing its electric grid, it should work with utilities, regulators, and software providers to develop systems that enroll all electricity consumers regardless of housing type in programs that offer clear discounts on utility bills for conserving energy. The benefits are threefold: reduce the financial burden on customers, increase customer response rates in crises, and endorse the individual’s power of choice in a massive state.

Get smart

The public response to California’s September 6th emergency text to reduce power is a reminder that individual actions can affect the greater good. It should also be taken as a reminder that personal sacrifice deserves substantive recognition. As more Californians face significant resource scarcity, their responsiveness to calls to further reduce their use of even basic services like power and water is likely to decline.

It’s time for Uncle Sam to get cash-smart about resource scarcity.

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Eleanor Johnstone grew up in Rochester, NY and earned her B.A. in Literature and African Studies from Middlebury College. Since graduating she has moved to progressively warmer and sunnier climates, earning...