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Too Hot to Handle: Soaring Temperatures Put Pressure on the Power Grid

Consistent, reliable electricity is something we don’t usually think much about. However, the nation’s power grid is under more stress than ever, and more frequent extreme temperatures could leave millions of people without air conditioning and other essential services this summer.

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

As temperatures rise, households and businesses need more energy to fuel appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers and fans. Officials say some regions may need to impose rolling blackouts to prevent outdated infrastructure from failing as demand for power surges. While some places like California and Texas are familiar with rolling outages, regions that are used to stable electricity (such as the Midwest) are now at risk for blackouts too. The Midwest regional grid is short the amount of energy needed to power 3.7 million homes during peak temperatures this summer.

“Aging power infrastructure is an obstacle to expanding our nation’s energy needs and to ensuring the safety and health of millions of families across the country during periods of extreme weather,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “It’s time to invest in the upgrades needed to power our nation for years to come, and the working men and women of LIUNA are ready to meet the call on those projects.”

Staying Cool in Extreme Heat

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Pull shades and blinds over all windows and, when possible, use cross-ventilation and fans to cool rooms.
  • Avoid hot and heavy meals, caffeinated drinks and alcohol.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water.
  • Stay on the lower, cooler levels of your home. If possible, visit a heat shelter or public space with air conditioning for a few hours.

Staying Safe in an Outage

Before

  • Consider purchasing battery-powered fans, radios, lights and heaters.
  • Protect your electrical appliances with a surge-protecting power bar.
  • Keep nonperishable food and water on hand.

During

  • Call your electric utility company immediately to report the outage.
  • Turn off your appliances and electronic equipment and adjust your thermostat according to instruction from energy officials.
  • Don’t open your fridge or freezer unless it is necessary. A freezer can keep food frozen for up to 36 hours if it remains closed. If the outage lasts longer than four hours, discard any meat, milk or dairy products in your refrigerator.
  • Use a generator if you have one, but only outside and away from any windows, to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning.

The power grid has been showing signs of distress for years, but outages are occurring faster than anticipated. The biggest threat to the power grid is frequent extreme weather events like heat waves, cold fronts, storms and droughts, as these can cause a surge in demand for power, damage equipment, disrupt access to water needed for energy production and decrease power plants’ efficiency. For example, in 2021, Texas experienced a winter storm that froze fuel pipes and sent nearly half of the state’s natural gas production offline. Residents were left in frigid temperatures without power – and therefore without heat – for an average of 42 hours.

Another factor contributing to the power grid’s fragility is our nation’s aging infrastructure. Transmission lines, for example, have an average lifespan of 50 years, and 70 percent of U.S. lines are at least 25 years old. Our infrastructure also wasn’t designed for the unstable and unpredictable environment we have today. The New Orleans power network was built in the 1970s and only engineered to withstand winds up to 95 mph. In 2021, Hurricane Ida brought 150 mph winds that left parts of Louisiana in a blackout for three weeks. As climate change accelerates, many electric grids will continue to face extreme weather that goes beyond what they were designed for, putting them at risk of failure.

Another issue is how the power grid is designed. As it stands, the grid is decentralized and comprises several smaller grids that are locally managed according to regional market demand. Because of this, the federal government has little regulatory authority over it, which makes it difficult to implement large-scale updates to aging infrastructure. However, the Biden administration will offer $2.5 billion in grants for grid-modernization projects as part of its infrastructure package, noting that a modern grid is the linchpin of its clean-energy agenda.

An Energy Crisis Is a Public Health Crisis

The consequences of power outages aren’t just inconvenient or uncomfortable. In some cases, they can also be deadly. In extreme heat, power cuts put lives at risk when there are no fans or air conditioners to provide relief from soaring temperatures. Last summer, the Pacific Northwest experienced historically high temperatures in a heat wave that killed almost 200 people. In extreme cold, power cuts can leave people without heat for days on end. Officials estimate that 246 people died from Texas’ 2021 winter storm. Power outages also pose threats to public health in more indirect ways: perishable food and medications can spoil without refrigeration, water purification systems can malfunction and life-sustaining medical equipment will turn off.

Most U.S. residents are unlikely to experience devastating, prolonged power outages, as energy companies have prepared for worst-case scenarios this summer. However, it’s important to know what to do if you do lose power at home. Check out the LHSFNA’s resources on heat illness and emergency preparedness for more information.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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