Residents of the desert are used to summer news reports that include an "excessive heat warning." It's the desert. It's summer.
One of those alerts was sounded in 2016, my first summer as a resident of the Coachella Valley, and it was a whopper. One July weekday, an excessive heat warning was issued for Palm Springs, where I worked downtown. The afternoon forecast was 122 degrees, extreme even for California's low desert. That's a number you might see in Death Valley. Planet Mercury, maybe.
Around 3 that day, I left the coolly conditioned air in my office and walked outside to see what 122 degrees felt like standing on the sidewalk in full sun. It was breathtaking. Literally. My lungs could not draw enough air to fill. It was as if the atmosphere was being rationed, as if a governor on my windpipe would allow only my bare share of respirable oxygen.
Sources vary, but most weather-watchers peg the record high temperature for Palm Springs at 123, a benchmark reached on two success days in July 1995. Even if you grade on the curve, that's momentous meteorology. This past Sunday, it reached 121 in Palm Springs, and 118 in nearby Palm Desert, where I live.
At 6:20 that morning, I woke up in a sweat. The AC was silent. The fan still. The radio dead. I called the Southern California Edison outage line. The automated response confirmed the power outage, and said the estimated time of restoration was 9 a.m. It invited callers to log onto the website to monitor progress, an activity that requires ... electricity. Or a working external wifi signal and precious cellphone battery reserve.
Is there a worse time to be deprived of power? On the hottest day of the year? During a stay-home pandemic? The weather forecast was not a surprise -- wouldn't the power company have anticipated high use over the weekend, and taken measures to adjust for the energy suck?
A spokeswoman for SoCal Edison contacted a bunch of company techies on my behalf to find out, but got no joy. Her colleague contacted me later and said that the company staffs up in advance of excessive heat events that are likely to increase the load because, as he said, "the reality is that there will be more outages."
The best way to minimize them, he said, was for the company to maintain its equipment (which is why there are planned outages) and for customers to use less electricity.
A recent study of U.S. energy use by WalletHub, a financial website, concluded that California ranked 50th in electricity consumption per consumer. Only residents of Washington, D.C. used less juice.
The Edison spokesman said even turning off your AC at night would help, that consumers should "conserve, where reasonable." Sunday night in Palm Desert, the temperature at midnight was still flirting with triple digits. The spokesman acknowledged that conservation "was harder in some hotter areas."
Earlier, the tech folks had told the spokeswoman that the Palm Desert outage was "weather-related," but not due to the load. They said, she said, that it was "an equipment issue, not a load issue." That it was "equipment failure due to excessive heat."
Am I splitting hairs to wonder what's the difference between excessive load and excessive temperatures causing a sudden power outage? She didn't think so, but she can't make up answers, only convey them.
We have a lot of power outages. The duration of planned outages is reasonably knowable. Others, like the one on Sunday, are accidents, and no one, often not even Edison, knows how long you should refrain from opening your fridge or draining the battery on your phone.
My neighbors to the east got the hell out of Dodge, and headed for their son's house in Thousand Oaks, where Sunday's temperature topped out at a wussy 90 degrees. Like me, my neighbor to the west hunkered down inside her hot house with the drapes drawn. She opened her freezer just once to snatch some Fudgsicles. I opened my fridge just once to grab a peach and some guacamole. I drank tepid water from the tap, checked my phone battery too often and tried to read in the dim, increasingly cloying air as the hours passed. It was so hot outside the lizards were panting.
Automated SoCal Edison called twice with optimistic estimated times of power restoration. Neither was correct. I checked the batteries in my flashlight and headlamps in case darkness arrived before electricity. I worried about missing Sunday's episode of "Grantchester on Masterpiece," and having to wait for the rerun to learn how Geordie would figure out who killed that guy, and if Will the hunky vicar would get over his sex guilt and start to play nice with Ellie.
The outage was inflicted on three separate Palm Desert neighborhoods. Power was lost and restored to those areas at different times over the course of a very long day. The earliest outage, according to the spokeswoman, was 2:45 a.m., and it was 9:22 p.m. (halfway through "Grantchester") before the last 4,000 addresses got switched back on. At one time, 12,000 customers were power-free. There's no way to know how many people were affected, because those numbers reflect billing addresses, not resident humans and their miserably overdressed dogs.
Shortly after 3 p.m., my cable box began to hum. The fridge groaned and the power light on the ice-and-water dispenser illuminated. The oven clock blinked. "I'm back, baby," I shouted, plugged in my phone and called my neighbor. Her appliances also were cheerfully chattering. It took a few more minutes for the thermostat to awaken. It said the temperature was 87, which seemed like an outrageous lie, and I had the body odor to prove it.
Once the AC cranked up, it took nearly three hours for my house to reclaim the set temp of 82. (I'm a conserver.) It was 109 outside.
I reset the TV. Several hours later I microwaved a cup of tea and turned on "Grantchester." Spoiler alert: The boxing coach did it.
Outage map photo courtesy Southern California Edison.