Environment & the World

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Heat Waves and Blackouts

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Environmental Justice — amirj @ 8:39 am

Roughly a month after the longest day of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere we are experiencing some of the hottest days of the year. This delay is quite typical and predictable, but is the severity of the summer heat getting any worse? This AP article reports that parts of California have faced 10 consecutive days of highs over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The article goes on to state that

“The stretch of 100-plus degree scorchers that descended on the state last week marks the first time in 57 years that both Northern and Southern California have experienced extended heat waves simultaneously, California Undersecretary for Energy Affairs Joe Desmond said.”

Of course, the heat isn’t just limited to California. The past week brought record high temperatures along much of the west coast. In the Weather Channel blog, Stu Ostro provides a glimpse at some of the hot weather headlines. Notably, on July 22, Los Angeles County saw its highest temperature ever recorded: 119 degrees F.

The heat has put pressure on the electric grids, leading to blackouts in California. But California isn’t the only reason electricity blackouts are in the news these days. A severe weather event knocked out power in to well over 500,000 customers in St. Louis. New York City also faced an outage that affected about 100,000 people this week.

 The news raises several questions. What’s the role of climate change with these heat waves? On a superficial level these events give the public a reason to complain about, or perhaps take seriously, global warming. At the same time, though–much as one severe hurricane like Katrina cannot directly be attributed to climate change–perhaps it’s a bit hasty to make a direct link between this particular heat wave and climate change. Nevertheless, climate change science does predict that the frequency and severity of these heat waves will increase in the coming decades.

The second subject I’d like to raise for debate relates to several aspects of the power blackouts. What is a society to do? Unfortunately the mantra of “reduce our dependence on oil” is not completely relevant to this problem. Even a grid based entirely on sustainables could face outages during events like these. Thus, we’re stuck in a position where our solutions lie in increasing electrical generation capacity or finding ways to reduce our demand. While the latter seems like the most environmentally-sound route to follow, I wonder how feasible it would be in a society that is predicated upon growth. Will our demand for electricity plateau sometime soon?

Regarding the blackouts and environmental justice, Aaron Davis writes in the aforementioned AP article,

“Many grew frustrated with [St. Louis power provider]  Ameren Corp.’s handling of the crisis. The Rev. Al Sharptonled a protest Tuesday in front of Ameren headquarters, saying the company was not doing enough to help poor and working-class people. The civil rights activist also called for a 10 percent rate cut to help the community recover. “

This begs the question, at the end of the day who suffers most from these power outages in California, St. Louis, and NYC? If indeed extra burden does fall on the poor, how does this inequality operate? Are there different agreements or payment plans that guarantee faster support and service that most poor and working-class people can’t afford? Does the problem stem from older utilities and grids in poorer neighborhoods that are more susceptible to damage and take longer to repair?


1 Comment »

  1. I’m not sure I understand either why this problem would affect working class / poor people more. You’re probably right that it has to do with older infrastructure in poorer neighborhoods. Also, such neighborhoods are often the last to be repaired since they can’t afford to complain as loudly.

    One part of the solution to this problem would be to have less centralized power grids. The extreme case of this, of course, is where everybody just generates their own power from solar panels on their roofs. But, since renewable fuels (at least in some areas) don’t require the large-scale centralized power plants that you need for coal, you could imagine a scenario where one town or different parts of a city all generate their own power independently. This wouldn’t necessarily make any one grid especially stable but would at least prevent massive black-outs.

    Comment by Cathy — Monday, July 31, 2006 @ 12:21 am

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