Extreme summer heat could lead to blackouts, report says

Published: Jun. 1, 2022 at 9:02 AM EDT
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(CNN) - America’s power system could face blackouts this summer.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration released a report last month, showing above-average temperatures across the country this summer.

Keeping the air conditioning and the lights on could overwhelm an aging electrical grid.

As wildfires burn and temperatures rise across the nation, a sobering new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warns the U.S. power system could buckle, triggering “energy emergencies” this summer.

The Upper Midwest and Mid-South along the Mississippi River face the highest risk of blackouts. Texas, the West coast and Southwest face an increased risk.

“The electric is old, and so it’s not designed to withstand the impacts of climate change,” said Romany Webb of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Extreme temperatures trigger a surge in demand, and that taxes the grid.

An early heat wave has already knocked six power plants offline in Texas this month. In Oklahoma, heat also played a role in blackouts.

Last year, the Texas power grid completely failed for days under a deep freeze, and 246 people died.

“An energy crisis can become a public health crisis. It can become a food health crisis,” energy advocate Yami Newell said.

She has seen the cascading effects of an unreliable power grid in her hometown of Chicago.

“For a wealthier family, if they have a power outage and all the food in their refrigerator goes bad, they may be able to afford to go back to the store and replenish the coffers. For a family that’s operating on a more restricted income, they may not be able to go back and refill the coffers,” Newell said.

In her Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, solar panels now dot the rooftop of a public housing complex.

A short drive from there, a backup battery stores energy from those solar panels as well as natural gas generators, creating what the state energy company calls a microgrid.

“Without power, we are talking about potential life-threatening situations. So this microgrid provides that backup to be able to deliver power even when the grid isn’t there,” said Paul Pabst of Commonwealth Edison Company.

The project is pending approval, but once its operating, it can connect and share power with the main grid.

In the event of a blackout, it can disconnect and operate independently, tapping its stored battery energy to power the homes, police station and hospital in the area for four hours.

“We have seen a reluctance on the part of many utilities to factor climate change into their planning processes because they say the science around climate change is too uncertain,” Webb said.

They’re basing analysis for grid reliability and investments on historical averages because planning for extreme projections is more expensive.

“And so we are continuing to design and sight facilities based on historical weather patterns that we know in the age of climate change are not a good proxy for future conditions,” Webb said.

As communities work to build a more resilient grid, Bronzeville is a possible blueprint for creating a backup for when climate wreaks havoc on the grid.

Also compounding the grid problems is drought, which reduces hydropower from power-producing dams.

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