Heat Waves and Our Aging Electrical Grid


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.


Related Care2 Coverage

Al Gore Asks Us To Get Real on Climate Change

Scientists Predict Extreme Heat Will Be The Norm In 20 Years

Your DVR Wastes More Energy Than Your Refrigerator

Photo by manymeez


Beverly G.
bev g.5 years ago

thk for this info. noted

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

We developed large batteries for the express purpose of integrating wind and solar into the grid. Why are we not using those large batteries to even out the electric supply over the course of a day?

Empress Ginger
Ginger Strivelli5 years ago

We don't have AC in our home..but if the summers keep being the way they have been this year and last I'm going to have to give up on the fans and go for a big energy sucking AC unit. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Patricia Y.
Patricia Y.5 years ago

Good information. Thanks.

Guy Kimble
Guy Kimble5 years ago

We needed to use our situmilus money for this project. To bad the money is all gone.

Dave C.
David C.5 years ago

went to see U2 last night....between opening act and their performance, the computer screen published fascinating facts....oil/gas for our cars will run out in 40 to 50 years at current pace...enough solar energy hits our planet to power the entire world with much left over....

why aren't we making the switch now????? I think we are, but I hope its not too late....

there is no other home for life, we must save the one we have and overcome all the "ME NOW" in our societies that don't want to think ahead or make sacrifices for the good of the world or the future.

Derp Herpington
.5 years ago

Hey I revised it again. Feel free to copy and paste everywhere to enlighten people who are dumb.

Put solar panels that create NO WASTE, and produce CLEAN ENERGY on your house. You will NEVER have an electric bill again, and if you produce enough energy you can charge it back to the grid, and GIVE the electric company a bill.

Most states will allow you to make up to $1000 a month or more charging electricity back to your local electric company. That's a $12,000 a year direct income that coupled with savings from not having an electric bill would net you around $15000+ yearly.


We should give all the middle/poor class people solar panels so they can charge electricity back to their local electric companies. Give them electric cars too so that they never have to pay for gas, and make sure those cars have solar panels on them so they are always charging. The financial offset alone would dramatically help our economy.

Of course the Republicans would rather you stay dependent on FILTHY energy sources like oil, and nuclear power. Solar power would upset the Republican plan to murder the middle/poor classes.

Derp Herpington
.5 years ago

You know what.

Even better idea.

Put solar panels on your house, produce clean energy, NEVER have an electric bill ever again, and if you produce enough energy you can charge it back to the grid, and GIVE the electric company a bill.

Most states will allow you to make up to $1000 a month or more charging electricity back to your local electric company. That's $12,000 a year. Most people in America live on that.


How about we set up all those middle/poor class people that the Republicans are trying to murder with solar panels so they can charge back to their local electric companies. The financial offset alone would dramatically help our economy.

Oh wait. That's right. The Republicans would rather you stay dependent on FILTHY energy sources like oil, and nuclear power.

Richard Zane Smith

we are ADDICTS to a level of comfort our ancestors never even dreamed of.
Americans will readily send their children to fight in wars just to MAINTAIN this
comfort flowing through our spoiled veins.

Imagine the chaos,the panic, if the entire American electrical system went haywire
and people were RIGHT NOW unable to have AC in the Southern states.
Americans would become illegal aliens with desperate eyes on Canada.

We are not prepared for any kind of lessening of our demanded comforts.

Derp Herpington
.5 years ago

I have a better idea. Build solar plants that produce NO WASTE, and produce CLEAN ENERGY.