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US power grids stretch to capacity as 100million people under heatwave alerts

Power grids seeking spikes in demand amid soaring heat

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Friday 22 July 2022 21:28 BST
Train catches fire near Boston amid heatwave
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Electricity grids are being stretched to the limits as an extended heatwave hits the US, causing people to crank up air conditioners to stay safe and cool during skyrocketing temperatures.

More than 100 million Americans have been under a heat advisory or warning in the past week including most major cities in the northeast and large areas of the south.

So far, outages have been few — but electricity demand is high in many parts of the country, and some utilities have asked people to voluntarily conserve power.

In Texas, where temperatures reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) in some locations, the power grid broke daily usage records on Monday and again on Tuesday, Reuters reported.

By Wednesday, when temperatures in Dallas hit 109F (43C) — a daily record — power usage in the state broke the record again. That made Wednesday the 11th time this summer that the Texas grid climbed to previously unforeseen demand levels, NBC5 reported.

The Texas grid, overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), has been able to match electricity needs, even amid surges. But twice last week ERCOT issued conservation warnings as demand inched up.

ERCOT’s grid has been under scrutiny since last winter when increased power use amid a freezing storm buckled the grid. The storm left 210 people dead and millions more without power for days in sub-zero conditions.

Southwest Power Pool, a grid operator from eastern Montana to northern Louisiana, also hit record-high usage this week. The operator issued power advisories to alert residents to the high use but made no requests to conserve electricity. Another advisory is scheduled for Monday.

Across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, temperatures will close in on 100F through Wednesday.

In New York City, where temperatures have stayed persistently in the mid-90s (35C) each day this week, utility company Con Edison asked some residents in Queens to limit electricity use on Thursday as they performed repairs.

While the city’s power grid has mainly held up, high temperatures and a few heavy storms led to outages in the Bronx and Queens, CBS News reports.

And the heatwave isn’t over yet. Temperatures are set to remain high across the northeast through Sunday, and coupled with humidity will feel like more than 100F (38C) at times. The National Weather Service predicts that Sunday could be the hottest day in Central Park in a decade, with a temperature of 99F (37C).

Summer is often a time of peak demand for grids as residents rely on energy-intensive cooling systems like air conditioners to deal with the heat.

Over 60 per cent of US electricity comes from fossil fuels, adding to the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet. President Joe Biden has pledged to make the entire US grid carbon-free by 2035.

Extreme heat has been dubbed the “silent killer” and is particularly dangerous for people with underlying health conditions, young children and the elderly.

Not all electricity demand is being caused by air conditioning. In Texas and other parts of the south, population growth over the years has increased usage, Reuters says.

Texas has also become a hub for cryptocurrency mining — a notoriously power-hungry operation – and that has further fuelled electricity demands. Last week, Bloomberg reported that Bitcoin mining operations in the state nearly entirely shut down to save electricity after ERCOT requested that people conserve power amid a demand surge. The inudstry is obligated to power off during shortages, they add.

The threat of blackouts from overworked grids is likely to increase as the climate crisis drives more intense and frequent heatwaves.

The planet has already warmed around 1.2C in the past 150 years – and if it reaches 2C, heatwaves that once occurred every 10 years will happen about every other year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate science authority, has said.

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