With the eastern US already facing a potential heat wave this weekend, the nation’s power grid regulator has a dire warning: Large swaths of the country are at risk of blackouts this summer, as Increased temperatures cause an increase in energy demand.
In its annual summer assessment released this week, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation noted that the Upper Midwest faces a capacity shortfall leading to “high risk of power emergencies.” The entire western US could also face a power outage emergency in the event of spikes in energy use.
“We’ve been doing this for almost 30 years. This is probably one of the bleakest pictures we’ve painted in a long time,” John Moura, director of reliability assessment and performance analysis at NERC, told CBS MoneyWatch.
A hotter-than-expected summer means more people will need more energy to cool their homes and offices, while high temperatures and drought deplete electricity supplies.
“Both extreme heat and drought conditions can put a lot of generation out of commission,” said Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in renewable energy.
Drought conditions across much of the West mean less water is available for hydroelectric power. The drought also affects power plants that run on coal, gas or nuclear power, which generate heat and need water to cool down.
“Extreme heat increases the chances of mechanical failure in conventional power plants,” Gramlich said.
West, Midwest on high alert
NERC is also keeping an eye on a potentially intense wildfire season across much of the West, threatening power transmission lines and, due to smoke, reducing the amount of electricity created by solar installations.
“If a power line goes down because of a fire, then there may be localized areas that have power shortages. It could be like half a state or it could be half a neighborhood,” Gramlich said. “And obviously they are very difficult to predict.”
But the hardest-hit parts of the country could be the Midwest, NERC warned. In a large swath of the grid stretching from Illinois to Minnesota, summer power demand is projected to exceed grid capacity. That’s because this area of the grid, known as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, has lost about 2% of its generating capacity since last year as plants pulled out; a key transmission line is also down for maintenance.
Moura said that as more capacity was added to the grid, much of it in the form of wind and solar power, older fossil fuel plants were being retired faster than they could be replaced. Meanwhile, scorching summers are pushing peak power demand higher and higher.
“As extreme weather continues to plague us, we’ve really come to realize that extreme weather doesn’t really mean weird weather,” Moura said. “We’ve seen extremes happen more often. You have to plan to have more resources available just in case.”
Still, the assessment doesn’t mean Midwesterners should start panicking. NERC warned last year that nearly 40% of the US population was at risk of blackouts, but most of the network except the Northwest was unaffected, Bloomberg reported.
What people should expect is an increase in pleas from utilities to conserve energy as earlier and more frequent heat waves drain the grid. Earlier this month, the Texas grid operator pleaded with residents to cut power use after six power plants unexpectedly shut down. MISO told residents to expect “temporary, controlled outages” this summer.
Double the number of blackouts
Strengthening the grid would require attracting more power generation resources and possibly keeping older plants running longer, as well as increasing connections between regions to facilitate power transport.
As more renewable power is built in, utilities and regulators can also manage it better by installing more batteries and incentivizing customers to switch when they use power to avoid overloading, said Grid Strategies’ Gramlich.
“The problem is that we all use electricity at the same time. But we don’t have to. We don’t have to be charging our electric vehicles when we need air conditioning at four in the afternoon,” he said.
If the US does not manage that transition successfully, we face the prospect of more severe and frequent blackouts, with life-threatening consequences.
Recent research by Brian Stone, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies urban climate change, shows that blackouts have increased in recent years.
“There has been a doubling in the number of blackouts per year in the last five years, with most blackouts occurring in the summer when it is hot,” he said.
“Most summers these days are the hottest summers on record. What’s overlapping is just a creeping risk of aging infrastructure…and those trends are converging at the wrong time,” Stone said.
Of all the types of damage caused by climate change (hurricanes, floods and fires), Stone believes that the danger posed by heat waves is the most underestimated.
“In a city like Phoenix, air conditioning is life support for people, and if you have an outage, it’s a tremendous vulnerability,” he said. “I characterize it as the biggest health-related threat that climate change poses to this county: a power outage during a heat wave.”