How wind impacts California's power grid during storms

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

Electric power towers are seen beneath dense and gray clouds in Southern California. Photo by Shutterstock.

More rain and snow is expected throughout California until Wednesday, and blizzard warnings are in effect in the Sierra Nevada and San Bernardino until then. Tens of thousands of people have lost power since Friday.

In summer, the state’s power grids are regularly strained by heat and fires. But they’re vulnerable to winter storms too. The problem will likely grow with climate change.

Andrew Campbell, executive director of UC Berkeley's Energy Institute at Haas Business School, explains that the state’s power plants are located up to hundreds of miles away from residents’ homes, so electricity comes from big transmission lines, then into substations and into neighborhoods. Above-ground power lines can get damaged by fallen trees. Underground lines are vulnerable to floods and earthquakes, and they’re tougher to repair. 

He notes, however, that the threat comes from wind more than rain. “The wind is what knocks down the trees. That's the real challenge. So what I think of is hurricane country. I mean, the Gulf Coast … even onto the East Coast. Those are places that do get these really terrible storms … and sometimes it's a real mess.”

Though the Biden administration has a new infrastructure plan, it may not lead to significant progress because the country’s energy system has such vast needs, Campbell points out. 

“A lot of the real work is actually more on the operational side, where each individual utility needs to focus on how they prepare for and respond to outages when they occur.”



  • Andrew Campbell - executive director of UC Berkeley's Energy Institute at Haas Business School