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Recent heat waves show the US power grid is unprepared for climate change

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Recent heat waves show the US power grid is unprepared for climate change

In Portland, Oregon, this week, the official recorded temperature reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit, power melted cables for city trams, downed overhead cables forced the light rail to shut down, and more of 6,000 people were without electricity.

But it is far from the first time that extreme weather has caused serious problems with the power grid in recent months. During the winter storm that hit Texas in February, almost 5 million people lost power. In June, California He suggested Have residents charge their EVs during off-peak hours to save energy. And for the first time, after power outages affected several neighborhoods during this week’s heat wave, New York City officials sent residents a mobile emergency alert urging them to conserve energy.

It is very clear that the United States electrical grid is unprepared for the effects of climate change, including extreme weather events that come with that. After all, climate change doesn’t just increase the demand for energy to keep people cool or warm amid heat waves and winter storms. It is also damaging the network itself. The country is now in a race against time to shift its energy supply to renewable sources such as wind and solar, while also needing more and more electricity to do everything from powering more air conditioning to boosting energy. number of electric vehicles on the road.

“I would probably give our power grid maybe a C minus”, Kyri bakeran engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder told Recode. “It’s like this perfect storm of extreme temperatures, more electricity consumption and aging infrastructure.”

Having a reliable electrical grid can be a matter of life and death. In the most severe power outages during the winter storm in Texas last February, an estimated 700 people died, according to Buzzfeed. Hundreds of people died during last week’s heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Meanwhile, the effects of heat waves have been disproportionately worse for historically marginalized brown, black and indigenous communities. The elderly, very young, who have certain medication conditions or who work outdoors are also more likely to feel the impacts of extreme heat.

Climate change means that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. intense and common, which is worrying not only because the electrical grid is aging. Sadly, the network is unprepared for a disturbing and looming future.

How the US Power Grid Works

Last year, about 40 percent of the country’s electricity generation it came from natural gas. While the network still relies on a fair amount of coal-based energyAn increasing part of the energy comes from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power, which will hopefully make the grid more sustainable. But while some of these sources are far worse for the environment than others, they all bring electricity to the grid, a giant engineering system filled with high- and low-voltage cables, sensors, poles, and transformers that work together to carry electricity. to your house.

Electricity travels through the grid, moving from high-voltage lines that carry electricity over long distances to low-voltage lines, a process known as “go down. “Low-voltage lines distribute that electricity to buildings and then to individual appliances and electronics. But there are obstacles. Right now, the country still faces problems with electricity. transmission line congestion They have maxed out the amount of electricity they can carry. In Vermont, solar and wind power have stalled because the grid is already too constrained.

“So it’s not like you can run a cable from point A to point B and everything will be fine,” explained Sam Gomberg, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “You need to put small steps along the way to guide that electricity in the direction you want it to go so that it eventually ends up in your home.”

In reality, the US electrical grid is made up of several regional grids, or interconnects, that are linked together and operate on a synchronized frequency of 60 Hertz. Although these systems are very large, monitoring the network is somewhat complex. Generating energy for the network are more than 10,000 power plants in the country. But the network itself, including the transmission and distribution systems, is operated by a combination of state and private entities, including some public-private collaborations. Then local utility companies like Con Edison in New York City and PG&E in San Francisco finally deliver electricity to people’s homes.

“The unique thing about the power system compared to any other type of infrastructure is that it is almost instantaneous,” Baker of UC Boulder told Recode. “So if I turn on a light in my house, there is an instant mismatch in supply and demand. And power plants respond in near real time to that increased demand. ”

At the same time, that means not being connected to a larger system can cause problems. Texas, for example, has chosen operate your own power grid, which is largely independent of other regional electrical systems. While this has given the state more autonomy, some have argued that Texas could have avoided such devastating outages last winter if the state’s grid had been able to draw from other energy sources. In particular, nearby Oklahoma was able to turn to other states to keep its power on during the same storm.

Why the heat makes things worse

Summer heat can interfere with the US electricity supply in many ways.

Hot weather can increase energy demand, often to power air conditioners, which can overload the electrical grid and lead to brownouts, partial outages that reduce the total energy available. At the same time, high temperatures can make power plants less effective, limit the amount of energy that power lines can carry, and increase the likelihood of transformer failure, helping to control voltage across the entire network. electrical.

So during the summer months, you may get an alert telling you to reduce your electricity use, such as delaying the vacuum until night. If the problem gets bad enough, utilities could even use continuous blackouts, when a utility company temporarily turns off electrical power in different areas to avoid overloading the entire system, in order to protect the network. Of course, while officials may find these steps necessary, ongoing blackouts can be inconvenient and even risky for residents who need power to stay cool during heat waves. Last week, the New York electric company Con Edison distributed dry ice to some Greenpoint, Brooklyn residents who were left without air conditioning during a power outage.

Heat can cause utility grid problems beyond excess capacity. If the weather gets hot enough, power lines start to sag, as a result of the expansion of the metal within them, and you risk hitting a tree and starting a fire. At the same time, power plants rely heavily on water, which they need to cool their systems. This means that as hot and dry weather increases the demand for air conditioning, the increased need for energy also increases the demand for water from the electricity grid, which is often in short supply during periods of drought. Cooling systems I also need electricity, adding even more energy demand.

Heat can damage power lines and make them less effective.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images

“We are trying to project the climate in two years or five years, and climate change makes it more difficult,” Anjan Bose. to the professor of electrical engineering at Washington State University, he told Recode. “If you can’t project the weather, you can’t project cargo demand.”

Eventually individual power users become aware of these problems. This summer, the California state power grid operator warned that people you need to prepare for temporary power outages. Last week, Portland had to shut down streetcar service. And in areas where there is a high risk of forest fires, service companies could order continuous blackouts to reduce the risk of an overloaded network causing additional fires.

What does Biden want to do to fix this?

The repair of the electrical network cannot be done in one go. Instead, the grid will need to be upgraded by transitioning to cleaner energy sources like wind and solar, adapting the grid and energy storage infrastructure to accommodate these new types of energy, and shifting our approach to energy consumption in general.

The system also needs to predict and respond to changes in energy demand. One part of the solution is smart grid technologies, which use sensors connected to the Internet in various parts of the grid to collect much more detailed data on how well those parts are performing. That real-time information can also help utilities quickly resolve potential problems before they become widespread. The Biden administration supports implementation this technology, which could be key to making power grids more resistant.

In April, then the White House released $ 8 billion in order to boost the capacity of the grid to support renewable energies, and pledged to facilitate the approval of new transmission lines focused on renewable energies. Joe Biden is now pushing to modernize the network as part of his massive infrastructure plan. Through that plan, the president hopes that the government will be able to spend at least $ 73 billion on improvements, including the construction of thousands of miles of new transmission lines to expand renewable energy. This will be key to making renewable energies more viable. As Umair Irfan and Rebecca Leber of Vox explain:

Transmission lines can connect areas that need power to places where wind and solar power are cheap, which can be thousands of miles apart. This would help drive the business case for wind and solar power. The proposal calls for a new grid authority to facilitate clean energy transmission and an infrastructure financing authority to help raise the money to pay for it.

But the changes have to go beyond the federal government. Equipment needs to be updated at regional and local level, also. It remains to be seen whether Biden will manage to address the complex challenges of upgrading the network. Without government action, private companies can get the job of fixing the grid, and there is no guarantee that they will put up long-term protection of the US power supply. ahead of your earnings.

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