The Snowballing Effect Wildfire Smoke Is Having on California

A view of Alcatraz island with wildfire smoke. Image: Miro Korenha/ODP

The smoke from California’s wildfires has had far-reaching consequences beyond the human health aspect. Aside from ruining the grape harvest for numerous wineries in Northern California wineries, over a month of smoky skies has had an impact on the state’s ability to reduce the very carbon emissions that have been fueling wildfires

As The Verge wrote, the smoke has been so bad that “it cut a significant chunk of solar power production in the state. Solar power generation dropped off by nearly a third in early September as wildfires darkened the skies with smoke, according to the US Energy Information Administration.”

Why This Matters: Tracking wildfire smoke as well as the air quality index (AQI) has become a part of daily life for many living on the West Coast. And as people become more concerned about the state of the air, they’re starting to gather data through apps like PurpleAir through small WiFi-equipped air pollution monitors that help give all people a hyper-localized AQI data.

As Bloomberg City Lab reported, “Traffic to PurpleAir’s online map has jumped 1,000% from average, with about 500,000 daily hits from California alone last week, says the company’s CEO and founder Adrian Dybwad. Sales of the devices, which range from $200 to $290, have jumped, as well.”

During wildfire season, California has some of the worst air quality in the world and we’re just learning about what that means for the lives of those affected. People have good reason to be wary (parents especially). And as the threat of blackouts looms during this time, it’s unclear if the push for solar plus storage will be a viable solution due to the smoke.

More on Renewables: The Verge also noted that “California depends on solar installations for nearly 20% of its electricity generation, and has more solar capacity than the next five US states trailing it combined. It will need even more renewable power to meet its goal of 100% clean electricity generation by 2045.”

In order to combat climate change which is helping cause wildfires at the scale at which we’re seeing them, California (as well as the rest of the nation) will need to embark on a rapid transition to renewable energy. Unfortunately, relentless wildfire smoke could create conditions that don’t allow California to meet its energy needs through renewables during its wildfire season.

As Greentech Media explained, the month of September in California blotted out the sun enough to cause quantifiable differences in solar output.

  • In the first two weeks of the month solar generation on the grid dropped about 13 percent year-over-year, even taking into account the fact that California added 659 megawatts of large-scale solar capacity during that period.
  • Production dropped 30% from the average output in July 2020 (when output is generally higher than in September).

The Rest of the Economy: Agriculture and hospitality are two major sectors of California’s ordinarily-booming economy, and both are especially impacted by wildfire smoke.

Smoke damages crops and puts agricultural workers at increased risk, while the hospitality and restaurant industries–already hard-hit by the coronavirus– are struggling with the smoke that’s impacting their limited abilities to serve food in outdoor settings.

This is one more example of how adapting to climate change isn’t feasible for many parts of our economy and society.

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