Ready for Climate Change-Induced Grid Blackouts Along With Heat Waves?

May 19, 2021
A power outage that took place during a heat wave could render go-to cooling options, like air conditioners, useless, potentially turning a crisis into a deadly disaster. Photo: Pixabay. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Ready for Climate Change-Induced Grid Blackouts Along With Heat Waves?

By Joseph A. Davis

Sometimes environmental journalists actually do need to think like horror movie screenwriters.

For instance, what would occur if a severe heat emergency coincided with a major electric grid blackout? It could happen. Could it happen near you?

The question was raised in a sweat-inducing piece (may require subscription) by Christopher Flavelle in The New York Times on May 3. It raises concerns that are worth reporting on in your state or metro area.

Flavelle’s piece envisions at least two simultaneous disasters: blackout and heat wave. Without any electricity, one of our key defenses against excess heat — air conditioning — is … powerless. The blackout becomes a force multiplier for disaster.

Doomsters will point out how the worse-case scenario gets worser and worser. Heat waves will be more likely as climate change progresses. And concentrations of poor and vulnerable populations in urban areas amplify the problem. “Urban heat islands” are really a thing. Hospitals and other emergency response agencies get overwhelmed. The morgues fill up and overflow.


High-heat events are just the thing

that can cause blackouts, as heavier

load from full-on air conditioners

strains the limits of the grid.


Thing is: High-heat events are just the thing that can cause blackouts, as heavier load from full-on air conditioners strains the limits of the grid. We have seen load-shedding blackouts in recent summers in California (where heat-related wildfire hazards can also prompt shutdowns for fire prevention). A heat-related blackout is still a possibility (subscription required) in California this year.

So as climate gets hotter, the likelihood of a double-whammy disaster increases.


Why it matters

Extremely high temperatures can be deadly — and in fact they often are, even today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 702 heat-related deaths on an annual average in the United States during 2004-2018.

Extreme heat could send death totals higher. A 2003 heat wave in Europe killed an estimated 70,000 people. A 1995 heat wave in Chicago killed 739 people in five days.

High heat can cause heat exhaustion (which is very unpleasant) and, ultimately, heat stroke (which is often fatal). But other heat-related illnesses, like heart attack, may not be immediately pegged to the heat itself. So the real toll could be higher.

The first care for heat-related illness includes getting the victim to a cooler location. On a good day, that might mean a local “cooling center.” But on a bad day (which is what we are talking about), the air conditioning at the cooling center may be stricken by the blackout. Or have capacity limited by a pandemic.


The backstory

If you don’t think huge electric blackouts can happen … you are not paying attention.

A few oldsters can remember the epic Northeast blackout of 1965, which darkened eight states and part of Canada. There have been many since.

Efforts to shore up grid reliability through organizations like North American Electric Reliability Corporation and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have not been completely successful.

Witness the catastrophic Texas blackout of February 2021, which was caused by cold rather than heat.


Story ideas

  • Who is in charge of planning for extreme heat events in your area? Fire department? Health department? Regional governments? Ask what their plans are.
  • Are there designated “cooling centers” in your area? Where are they? Who runs them? Are there enough? How long could people stay there? Do they have back-up power supplies? Any plan B if the power fails?
  • How would extreme heat events (with or without blackouts) affect vulnerable populations in your area? For instance, socially isolated elderly people? Or low-income people who can not afford air conditioning? Or people in crowded or poorly maintained housing?
  • How has your locality or area responded to past extreme heat events?
  • What contingency plans do local hospital emergency rooms have for handling overwhelmingly large numbers of heat-related illness cases?
  • What are the outreach and support networks in your area that could respond in a helpful way to a simultaneous heat event and blackout? Do they depend on phone networks? How would a blackout affect phone networks?
  • What other infrastructure could be impacted by a blackout? Think municipal water supply (and more than just fire hydrants).


Reporting resources

  • Local Emergency Planning Committees: These were set up for chemical emergencies, but many communities have morphed them into all-hazard task forces of first responders. To find yours, start here.
  • Regional councils or councils of governments: These associations of municipal government often plan for metropolitan areas across jurisdictions. If you don’t know yours, you may find them through the National Association of Regional Councils. Don’t forget, too, about local, county or state health departments.
  • Regional grid reliability councils or independent system operators: Paths to finding these are spelled out in a previous SEJournal article.
  • National Integrated Heat Health Information System: This outfit is a joint project of CDC and NOAA, and offers a lot of info on health implications of extreme heat. Also, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 20. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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