“If it isn’t one thing, it’s another,” is the old saying. But it may be both for some parts of the country this summer – heat waves and power blackouts.

Three month temperature outlook. NOAA

“Parts of North America are at elevated risk to energy emergencies,” said the North American Electric Reliability Council [NERC] in May. “Above-normal heat in summer can challenge grid operators by increasing demand from temperature-dependent loads (such as air-conditioning and refrigeration) and reducing electricity supplies as a result of lower-than-capacity resource output or increased outages.”

“Summer 2020 and winter 2021 were ‘difficult to say the least,’ and the latest assessment signals ‘similar risks’ lie ahead,” said a UtilityDive news item quoting the head of NERC.

Specifically, the NERC report suggests that California, Texas, New England, and some of the Midwest have that possibility. That’s a whole lot of the nation.

The NERC report says that while some specific areas of the nation have improved their reserve capacity of power, there is still risk. Extreme heat raises the need for electricity and there could be low output from intermittent sources like wind.

For instance, it couches Texas like this:

“Planning Reserve Margins have increased to 15.3% from 12.9% last summer with the addition of 7,858 MW wind, solar, and battery resources since 2020. However, extreme weather can affect both generation and demand and cause energy shortages that lead to energy emergencies in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). With a significant portion of electricity coming from wind generation, operators must have sufficient flexible resources to cover periods of low-wind output.”

The interplay of the power supply and hot weather reflects the challenge of transitioning the electric system to new resources in the midst of a changing climate.

Add to that another issue – public health. A recent study called, Compound Climate and Infrastructure Events: How Electrical Grid Failure Alters Heat Wave Risk, outlines the complications:

“The potential for critical infrastructure failures during extreme weather events is rising. Major electrical grid failure or “blackout” events in the United States … increased by more than 60% over the most recent 5-year reporting period. …population exposures to extreme heat both outside and within buildings can reach dangerously high levels as mechanical air conditioning systems become inoperable. … Study results find simulated compound heat wave and grid failure events of recent intensity and duration to expose between 68 and 100% of the urban population to an elevated risk of heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke.”*

Utilities will work even more closely with coordinating entities to ensure grid reliability. This will necessarily include managing the demand for power, either with voluntary measures (customers offer to have their power reduced for a break in price) or non-voluntary outages in extreme cases.

Utilities will also be working hard to model the transition to more intermittent power sources, like solar or wind, and how to use battery technology as a source of electricity.

Will the resource adequacy be a one-summer thing? Not likely. The energy transition will take years. Bottom line: Learn how to conserve energy at home.


*Citation for health study: Stone B Jr, Mallen E, Rajput M, Gronlund CJ, Broadbent AM, Krayenhoff ES, Augenbroe G, O’Neill MS, Georgescu M. Compound Climate and Infrastructure Events: How Electrical Grid Failure Alters Heat Wave Risk. Environ Sci Technol. 2021 May 18;55(10):6957-6964. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.1c00024. Epub 2021 Apr 30. PMID: 33930272.