The heat wave that has already taken 22 lives has reached the East Coast. I confess to cranking up the air-conditioning, though not to the icebox-like conditions of my local supermarket. I’m just hoping we won’t have a power outage like the three-day one that Ottawa had. As Bryan Walsh writes in Time magazine, the heat wave is putting our aging electricity grid to the test.
Con Edison, the New York power company, actually pays industrial clients who volunteer to reduce the amount of electricity they use. But people are also using “extreme power” in their homes as well and, these days, people staying inside on 40 degree Celsius/104 degree Fahrenheit days means that lots of electrical appliances including TVs and computers are on. Power companies have no choice but to turn to aging power plants:
To meet the excess demand — which can be double the amount of power consumed during a cool day in April — utilities will activate peaker plants: small, inefficient power plants that are turned on and off as needed. Because they’re so inefficient, the power they produce is more expensive than the juice from the backbone fleet — and because the plants tend to be older, they can also lead to more air pollution as well. But when the temperature stays north of 90 F for days on end, those peaker plants are often the only thing preventing a brownout or even a blackout. And this heat wave will be particularly stressful because it will last for so long — at least through the weekend — and will cover such a large portion of the country. The grid will be reaching its limit, with little room for error.
Barring a “region-wide blackout” as happened in 2003 (and on a day when it wasn’t as hot), Walsh says that the grid “should weather this heat wave, and all the other high-temperature days to follow this summer.” But the reality is that the grid, like the knob and tube wiring we found in our 1920s house when we moved in, was built in the early 20th century. It wasn’t, that is, meant to power the increasingly sophisticated, and numerous, devices we use today. Walsh writes:
Speaking to members of his advisory board yesterday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned that the electrical grid might not be able to handle the new renewable electricity generation expected to be brought online over the next 10 years. (Renewable power from intermittent sources like solar or wind tends to put more stress on the electrical grid than steady sources like coal or natural gas.) More heat waves of the sort the U.S. will experience over the next few days — headed our way over the next few decades — will only stress the grid further. That sizzling sound you’re hearing isn’t just the asphalt.
It’s a reminder that, as we sweat through the heat wave, we don’t have to have the lights on throughout the house, do loads of laundry in the early afternoon when energy use peaks and have the TV, two computers and the AC blasting away. I’ve found it helpful to do two things that might seem the opposite of what to do when outside feels like a steamy sauna: Drink hot tea (something I got in the habit of doing after spending a summer in Taiwan in an un-air-conditioned apartment) and go outside for relatively short, but more frequent, periods; my son still insists on riding bikes and going on walks in the hot weather and doesn’t seem to mind that it is over 100 degrees as he’s sprinting down the sidewalk.
Stay cool, but — though you may need to due to medical conditions — there’s no need for many of us to keep our homes icy cold.
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