The record breaking heat wave hitting the northwestern United States offers the latest example of how unprepared we are to face the deadly challenges of climate change.
Triple-digit temperatures in many areas have created increasing demands for energy and straining the grid as residents turn on fans and air conditioners – in many cases, newly acquired units in locations that do. rarely needed in the past. At least thousands of homes have lost electricity around Portland, Seattle and elsewhere over the past few days, creating potentially dangerous situations amid high temperatures that can easily trigger heat stroke or worse.
Observers fear there will be more widespread blackouts as temperatures soar higher this week and the heatwave reaches other areas.
Climate change is leading to increasingly frequent, extreme and prolonged heat waves around the world, climatologists say systematically find. In this case, a high pressure ridge parked along the Canadian border created what is known as a thermal dome, trapping hot air over an area stretching all the way to northern California and also far into the is that Idaho.
Californian network managers ad they would likely call for voluntary reductions in electricity use on Monday, amid predicted supply shortages as temperatures threaten to reach the mid-100s in the interior of the state.
While the main concern is the increase in demand that occurs when residents turn on the air conditioning, the heat itself can also undermine the grid in other ways, says Arne Olson, senior partner at consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics Inc. Among other problems, it can reduce the efficiency of power plants, overheat transformers and cause sagging power lines, which can brush against the trees and cause breakdowns.
California faces the added challenge of having less hydroelectric power available than normal, amid extreme drought conditions. In addition, the operators of the interconnected networks in the west may not be able to count on a significant oversupply from other regions, as the heat wave is affecting so much of the country, Olson adds.
In many ways, we are seeing an electrical system largely designed for the climate of the past that increasingly struggles with the climate of the present, says Jane Long, former associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Strengthen our electrical systems for increasingly frequent or severe extreme weather conditions, whether it is this summer’s heatwaves or the storms of last winter—Will require major upgrades to US networks, including: the move to modern transmission and distribution systems; “severe weather“Production sources such as wind turbines or natural gas power plants; and adding a lot more energy storage.
It will also require the development of a diverse range of power plants that can provide a regular supply in any weather scenario or at any time of day, says Long. This will become more difficult as regions depend on increasing shares of wind and solar energy, which fluctuate continuously. Studies of Long and others to have found States will need to incorporate additional carbon-free sources that can provide on-demand production, such as geothermal, nuclear, hydrogen or natural gas power plants with systems capable of capturing climate emissions.
Soaring temperatures and severe drought conditions also increase the risk of fires, requiring modifications and additional considerations regarding the electrical system, including: burying lines, installing modern lines who goes out when an outage is detected, and the construction of distributed power generation and storage systems.
Power outages are not only an inconvenience during heat waves, they can quickly turn fatal as heat exhaustion turns into heat stroke, says Stacey Champion, a community activist who has tracked deaths from the heat inside Arizona and pushed the local utility to suspend power cuts during periods of high temperature. “It’s called the silent killer,” says Champion.
Indeed, heat waves kill more Americans than hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes combined. Children, the elderly and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
Studies find that deaths and illnesses from soaring temperatures will only increase as climate change accelerates.