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Heat Domes & the Future of the Electric Grid

Last week, Lytton, a small town in British Columbia, Canada, broke its nation’s all-time temperature reading three days in a row as temperatures soared as high as 121 degrees. Days later, the village largely burned to the ground as extreme wildfires spewed smoke and ash 55,000 feet into the sky.

Now, southwest Canada and much of the western United States are bracing for another bout of exceptional heat amid a pattern that could once again place records in jeopardy. Death Valley, Calif., might spike to 130 degrees.

Temperatures up to 25 degrees above average could dominate most of the West this weekend into next week, with little relief in sight for quite some time. Odds favor anomalously hot and dry conditions to prevail into the fall.

Heatwaves are a double whammy for the electrical grid. The combination of the hot weather and the increased energy running along wires go beyond what they were built to endure. As a result, transmission lines swell and sag and, in some cases, can topple infrastructure.

Even without extreme weather events, the power grid needs love. The grid was largely built in the 1950s and 1960s with a 35- to 80-year life expectancy, meaning much of it should have been retired and replaced by now. America’s energy infrastructure scored a C-minus on the U.S. Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial report card.

About half of the homes in the Pacific Northwest don’t have air conditioning. After last week, that is likely to change as people recognize that AC isn’t just a luxury; it’s a needed form of climate adaptation.

As people invest in new AC systems, they simply must be all-electric. The reason for this is twofold:

  • All-electric homes are critical to decarbonization. The appliances bought today will be around for decades. Buying anything gas-powered would lock in emissions for years to come, at a time when decarbonization is a climate imperative.
  • All-electric HVAC systems are more efficient. Air source heat pumps collect more energy from the air than they use. That ultimately saves money and energy, which means less strain on energy systems as people ramp up usage during extreme weather.

All-electric homes are still relatively new, meaning it can be more difficult to find the right contractors and appliances. If you’re considering a new system, check out The Switch Is On and The Building Decarb Coalition for more information.

Another option if you have a small home that uses much less electricity than a conventional A/C unit is a swamp cooler. This evaporative system is very popular in desert areas like the Southwest, and the best part of all? You can make one yourself using materials you can find at any hardware store…as demonstrated in this 2016 video from Grist.org.

You read more about the Pacific Northwest heat dome and the future of the electric grid at Greenbiz.com here.