Power operators need to be aware of climate change — or prepare for summer blackouts

Summer may still be a month away, but electrical system operators are already feeling the heat.

With above-average temperatures forecast for much of the US in the coming months, system operators face the prospect of high electricity demand and reduced supply, which will make it difficult to get the lights on. System operators should expect this. However, it is well known that climate change is driving average temperatures up and causing more frequent heat waves, which put a strain on electrical systems. But many system operators are still not planning for this new normal. If they don’t get started soon, the consequences can be devastating.

Electric consumers in Texas saw a preview of what might happen last week. On Friday, at the start of a multi-day heatwave, the state’s six natural gas power plants suddenly shut down. As temperatures in some areas neared 100 degrees Fahrenheit, grid operator the Texas Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) asked residents to limit use of air conditioners and other large appliances. Most of the population complied and widespread power outages were avoided. But we have to wonder – if this happened in May, what would July and August be like?

Electricity demand typically spikes during the warm summer months, with the highest peaks occurring during summer heatwaves, when people rely heavily on their air conditioners to stay cool.

Just as people struggle with heat, so do many power generation facilities. Natural gas power plants, in particular, operate less efficiently resulting in less output when temperatures are high. Delivering electricity also becomes more difficult as higher temperatures can disrupt the operation of the transmission infrastructure and result in more electricity being lost before it reaches consumers.

The combination of high demand, dwindling supply, and transportation challenges increase the potential for summer outages, which can be deadly.

A 2021 study found that a power outage during a summer heatwave in Atlanta, Detroit or Phoenix would put at least 68 percent of residents in those cities at high risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. According to research, each city’s public refrigeration centers can only accommodate 2 percent of the population, leaving most without protection against the extreme heat.

This risk is not only theoretical. Last month, Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO) — the entity responsible for operating power grids in 15 Midwestern and Southern U.S. states — predicted that above-average temperatures this summer will lead to peak demand that is likely to exceed available supply. regularly. . Unless MISO can make up for the shortfall — for example, by convincing consumers to use less electricity — blackouts are inevitable.

Other grid operators, including those in Texas and California, are also projecting strong electricity demand this summer. In Texas, ERCOT has expressed confidence that sufficient supply will be available to meet demand, but last weekend’s events were a reminder of how unplanned power generation disruptions can quickly cause problems.

California is also bracing for a tough summer. The California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), which manages the power grid for most of California and parts of Nevada, has warned of potential supply shortages, particularly in late summer.

CAISO and other electrical system operators may underestimate the risk of summer outages. Most system operators, including CAISO, base their summer electricity demand and supply projections on historically averaged weather conditions. With climate change pushing temperatures up and increasing the likelihood of heat waves, historical averages are no longer a good indicator of future conditions.

Electrical system planning must take into account the new realities of climate change. But that hasn’t happened, even at CAISO, which has direct experience with the effects of climate change.

In the summer of 2020, a heat wave disrupted the operation of a number of natural gas power plants in California, causing a significant drop in output. Hydroelectric power in the state is also down due to a prolonged drought, while solar power generation was disrupted by clouds from storms, and a series of wildfires threatened transmission lines, further limiting power supplies. All of this led to two days of rotating blackouts for California residents.

The state investigation identified “climate change caused by extreme heat” as a major contributor to the blackout. California regulators later recommended changes to electrical system planning to “calculate better” [h]feed on storms and other extreme events due to climate change.”

However, CAISO bases its forecast for summer demand this year on historical weather data which, it admits, “does not fully reflect” the risk of extreme events caused by climate change. For example, as CAISO notes, the forecast does not take into account the likelihood of extreme heat, drought and wildfires occurring simultaneously. However, this combination of events occurred two years ago and caused major disturbances in the electrical system.

It is past time for electrical system operators to recognize reality — climate change is here, and they must plan for it. It is a good start for system operators to use forward-looking climate projections to inform their assessments of electricity demand and supply.

Few in the electrical industry have succeeded in doing so. For example, New York’s Consolidated Edison has used climate projections to evaluate how anticipated changes in temperature and humidity will affect demand in its service area (among other things). Unfortunately, this is not the norm. That is a real problem.

Unless and until circumstances change, and system operators start planning for climate change impacts, we must all be prepared for more summer blackouts.

Romany Webb is a research associate at Columbia Law School and a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

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