Summer may be left for a month, but the electric system operators already feel the heat.
With forecasts for temperatures above the average for the more significant part of the U.S. in the coming months, the system operators face a massive power outage and reduced supply, which will make it challenging to keep the lights on. System personnel should have expected this. It is well-known that climate change raises the temperature and leads to average temperatures, emphasizing the electrical system. But most system operators have not yet set this new standard. If they do not start immediately, the consequences can be devastating.
Electricity consumers in Texas saw a preview of what could have happened last week. On Friday, at the start of a multi-day heatwave, the state’s six natural gas power plants unexpectedly disconnected from the internet. With temperatures in some areas approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a Texas company’s Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT) has asked residents to limit their use of air heaters and other large electrical appliances. Most of the residents did so, and the widespread power outages were avoided. But one has to ask – if this happens in May, what will it look like in July and August?
Electricity demand tends to rise during the warm summer months, with very high peaks occurring during the summer heatwaves, when people rely heavily on their air conditioners to stay calm.
Just as people struggle with heat, so do many generators. Natural gas power plants, in particular, operate less efficiently and produce less output at higher temperatures. Delivery of electricity is also complicated as high temperatures can disrupt the operation of the transmission line and cause the power to be lost before it reaches consumers.
The combination of high demand, reduced availability of resources, and travel challenges increases the chances of summer breakouts, which can be fatal.
A 2021 study found that the onset of summer heatwaves in Atlanta, Detroit, or Phoenix would put at least 68 percent of the population in those cities at high risk of fatigue and heat. According to the study, community policing centers in each city can accommodate only 2 percent of the population, leaving the majority vulnerable to extreme heat.
This danger is not just a theory. Last month, Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) – an organization responsible for using the power grid in 15 countries in the Midwestern and Southern U.S. . Unless MISO can close the deficit – e.g., by convincing consumers to use less electricity – shutdown will be inevitable.
Other grid operators, including Texas and California, also highlighted the massive electricity demand this summer. ERCOT has expressed confidence that adequate supply will be made available in Texas to meet the need. Still, last weekend’s events remind us how unplanned generation disruption can cause problems quickly.
California is also preparing for a difficult summer. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which controls the power grid throughout much of California and parts of Nevada, has warned of potential shortages, especially in late summer.
CAISO and other electrical system operators may look at the risks of a summer shutdown. Most system users, including CAISO, support their need for summer electricity and speculation to provide historical climate measurements. With climate change, rising temperatures, and increasing temperatures, historical figures are no longer good indicators of future conditions.
The planning of the electricity system must address the new reality of climate change. But that has not happened yet, even with CAISO, which has initial knowledge of the effects of climate change.