The heat wave that is swept across the Northwestern United States offers the latest example of how ill-prepared we are to face the deadly challenges of climate change.
Three-digit temperatures in many areas have created increasing energy demands and tensions on the grid, as residents turn on fans and air conditioners – in many cases new units purchased in locations that have rarely required them in the past. At least thousands of homes have lost power around them Portland, Seattle and elsewhere in recent days, creating potentially dangerous situations amid temperatures that can easily trigger a heat stroke or cold.
Observers are worried there will be more frequent disruptions as temperatures rise higher this week and heat waves reach other regions.
Climate change is leading to more and more frequent, extreme and widespread heat waves around the globe, climate scientists are finding consistently. In this case, a high-pressure ridge parked along the Canadian border has created what is known as a heat dome, trapping hot air over an area that extends as far north as California. east to Idaho.
California network operators announced they are likely to demand voluntary reductions in electricity use on Monday, amid projected supply shortages as temperatures threaten to reach the mid-1990s in the interior of the state.
While the main concern is the growth in demand that occurs when residents turn on air conditioning, the heat itself can undermine the network 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 lower power lines, which can burning against the trees and cause interruptions.
California faces the additional challenge of having less available hydroelectric power than normal, amid extreme drought conditions. In addition, operators of interconnected western networks could not count on an excessive amount of supply from other areas because the heat wave affects such a large area of the country, Olson adds.
In many ways, what we are witnessing is an electrical system largely built for the climate of the past that struggles more and more with the climate of the present, says Jane Long, a former associate associate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Reinforce our electrical systems for increasingly frequent or severe forms of extreme weather – whether summer heat waves or storms last winter– will need major upgrades to US networks, including: switching to modern transmission and distribution systems; “air conditioning“Generating sources such as wind or natural gas plants; and adding a lot more energy storage.
We also need to develop a variety of power plants that can provides a stable supply in any weather situation or time of day, says Long. This will become more complicated when regions go on to rely on ever-increasing quotas of wind and solar energy, which are constantly fluctuating. Studies by Long and others to have found states should incorporate additional carbon-free sources that can provide output on demand, such as geothermal, nuclear, hydrogen, or natural gas plants with systems that can capture climate emissions.
Electrical outages are not only an inconvenience during heat waves, they can quickly become deadly, as heat exhaustion turns into heat stroke, says Stacey Champion, a community advocate who has tracked the deaths of Interior heat in Arizona is pushed local utility for electrical suspensions and interruptions during periods of high temperature. “He’s known as the dumb killer,” Champion says.
In fact, heat waves kill more Americans than hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes combined. Children, the elderly and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
Studies found that deaths and illnesses from rising temperatures will increase only at the time of the acceleration of climate change.