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Extreme heat, weather may lead to blackouts for millions this summer

FILE - Central Maine Power utility lines are seen on Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
FILE - Central Maine Power utility lines are seen on Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
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WASHINGTON (TND) — Extreme heat and weather conditions may lead to rolling blackouts and power outages for parts of the U.S. this summer.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit that regulates the nation’s power grid, warned several parts of North America are at risks of energy shortfalls this summer.

Most of the U.S. will have enough resources to avoid issues, but parts of the Upper Midwest and mid-South along the Mississippi River are at the highest risk.

“Industry prepares its equipment and operators for challenging summer conditions. Persistent, extreme drought and its accompanying weather patterns, however, are out-of-the-ordinary and tend to create extra stresses on electricity supply and demand,” Mark Olson, NERC’s manager of Reliability Assessments said in the announcement. “Grid operators in affected areas will need all available tools to keep the system in balance this summer."

Texas and the Southwest are also at an elevated risk where high temperatures will drive demand for power, but drought conditions will limit the supply available.

State officials in California have already warned about the possibility of a shortfall this summer. A megadrought caused by climate change has cost the state significant amounts of power as hydropower plants were unable to operate due to a lack of water.

The only thing we expect is to see new and surprising conditions, and we're trying to be prepared for those," Alice Reynolds, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said earlier this month.

Air conditioning during warmer weather pulls a lot of demand and forces the grid to run closer to its capacity limits, which creates reliability issues that can result in shortfalls when power cannot be transported or produced.

To combat shortfalls and protect the grid from damage, suppliers institute rolling blackouts — a possibility facing millions of Americans this summer.

“Whenever you're operating close to those limits, you're turning on power plants that aren't usually on but they're just there when there's high peak demand, and you can just run into a lot of different reliability problems and there can be chances of blackouts,” said Johanna Mathieu, associate professor electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.

When there are expected periods of peak demand, utility companies offer incentives to consumers to reduce their consumption during peak hours, giving the grid a break at a time it will be running near capacity.

Power can also be transferred to different locations on the same grid, but sometimes the infrastructure limits where it can come and go from.

Outside of high temperatures, severe weather events like storms and wildfires will also cause reliability issues for parts of the grid. Even when there is sufficient supply to meet demand, parts of the transmission infrastructure can be taken out.

NERC’s summer assessment noted the U.S. West is anticipating an active wildfire season late in the summer. Various parts of the energy grid can be damaged or shut down due to safety risks.

You just can't get that to consumers because portions of their local grid are down,” Mathieu said. “That's a major issue that people are directly experiencing as well.”

Future investments and development in technology will help the U.S. deal with more extreme weather events caused by climate change in the future.

There is limited ability to store energy because battery technology is expensive and unable to operate at a high enough capacity.

“There's a lot of technologies that are coming along and companies that are proposing solutions, but most of those solutions aren't totally at scale,” Mathieu said. “There's still a lot of research going on into how to make these things scalable.”

Parts of the grid can be modernized to improve capacity and the efficiency at which it is transmitted, but those solutions also require significant investments and time.

“Right now, power just sort of flows based on physics, you don't get to really control where it goes on a traditional (alternating current) transmission system,” Mathieu said. “But if you put power electronics devices in place that can help you basically steer power through high-voltage direct current links.”

A transition to more renewable sources could help alleviate the burden on traditional power plants.

"Every energy generation is grappling with this very issue – how to mitigate and respond to the climate risks we will all face," said Matt Crozat, executive director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute. "As we transition to a carbon-free grid, it’s critical we take into account a changing climate and ensure our grid is most effective to withstand extreme weather events. Ensuring the availability of firm carbon-free generation like nuclear energy along with a mix of wind and solar will be important in maintaining not only a reliable grid during extreme weather events, but an affordable grid."

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