Heat Waves Air conditioning units in an apartment building on July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty ImagesHeat Waves Air conditioning units in an apartment building on July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

When Hurricane Ida battered Louisiana with catastrophic flooding and powerful winds in August 2021, more than 1 million people lost power. Then came the Heat wave. Temperatures rose above 90 degrees Fahrenheit — a sucker punch to those sweltering in their homes, unable to turn on air conditioning as power outages stretched on for days.Heat Waves Air conditioning units in an apartment building on July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

It was the heat that proved deadliest in New Orleans, responsible for at least nine of the city’s 14 hurricane-related deaths.

Air conditioning is not without its flaws. It consumes a significant amount of energy, much of which still comes from fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Additionally, air conditioning is a luxury not everyone can afford, deepening social inequality.

Despite its drawbacks, air conditioning is a vital defense against the increasing intensity of heat waves, which are the deadliest form of extreme weather. It allows people to live in regions with dangerously high temperatures, where the heat can be relentless even at night.

As global temperatures rise and incomes increase, the demand for air conditioning is expected to triple worldwide by 2050.

However, air conditioning relies on electricity, and many power grids are already struggling to keep up with the growing demand. Extreme weather, driven by climate change, is pushing these grids to their limits.

According to a report from Climate Central, weather events accounted for 80% of major power outages in the US from 2000 to 2023. “Every aspect of weather is beating on the already vulnerable grid and really giving it a test,” said Jen Brady, a senior data analyst at Climate Central.

Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, noted that the US’s aging grid was designed for “the weather of the past, rather than the weather of the future.”

Heat Waves Are Getting Longer and More Brutal. Here’s Why Your AC Can’t Save You Anymore

The main threat to our power grids comes from storms, which can bring down transmission wires and poles. However, extreme heat is also taking a toll. When temperatures soar, the grid operates less efficiently, much like how a runner might struggle in the heat. As everyone cranks up their air conditioning to cope, the grid can buckle under the demand.

In the US, major power outages affecting more than 50,000 customers and lasting at least an hour doubled between 2017 and 2020. Brian Stone Jr., an expert in urban environmental planning and design at the Georgia Institute of Technology, pointed out that most of these outages occur during the summer. “These systems are not resilient,” he told CNN.

For example, during a heatwave in August 2020, California’s main grid operator had to implement rolling blackouts for the first time in 20 years to manage the surge in demand. Similarly, in 2021, the Pacific Northwest experienced rolling blackouts as temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Heat wave causing power equipment to fail.

This problem isn’t unique to the US. In June, parts of southern Europe, including Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro, experienced hours-long blackouts as temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to a spike in electricity demand.

Air conditioning, while a lifeline against heat, depends on electricity. With power grids increasingly pushed to their limits by extreme weather and rising demand, relying solely on AC for relief is becoming less viable. The aging infrastructure, designed for past weather patterns, struggles to Heat wave keep up with the current and future climate realities.

Even short power outages during heat waves can be deadly. “If the grid goes out during a heat wave, it quickly goes from uncomfortable to deadly,” said Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Extreme heat can affect vital organs, causing heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death. While people can add layers and make fires to stay warm during a cold snap, cooling down during extreme heat relies entirely on electricity.

But it is also a lifeline against increasingly brutal heat, the deadliest type of extreme weather. It allows people to live in places where temperatures push close to the limits of survivability and where extreme heat persists even at night.

Demand for AC is exploding, expected to triple worldwide by 2050, as global temperatures soar and incomes grow.

Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, described the combination of heat waves and power outages as “the most deadly climate-related event we can imagine.” Stone and a team of scientists studied the impact of a heat wave coinciding with a multi-day power outage in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, and Phoenix. They found that indoor heat exposure, a significant driver of heat-related illness during power outages, Heat wave could lead to catastrophic health outcomes.

In Phoenix, the figures were especially alarming. During a three to four-day heat event and outage, nearly 800,000 people, or half the city’s population, would require hospital treatment for heat-related illnesses, and more than 13,000 would die. “A power outage in Phoenix causes a very dramatic shift in heat illness,” Stone said, highlighting the city’s extreme climate and residents’ heavy reliance on air conditioning.

Phoenix authorities, however, maintain that the city is well-prepared for such scenarios. Mayor Kate Gallego stated that Stone’s research was based on an extremely unlikely scenario and did not account for existing emergency response plans or the reliability of the local electric grid. Arizona Public Service, a major energy provider in Phoenix, also emphasized its robust plans to prevent large-scale interruptions and regular grid maintenance.

Despite the low likelihood of a combined multi-day power outage and heat wave, Stone warned that such events are becoming more possible as the climate crisis worsens. With power grids increasingly strained and temperatures rising, ensuring resilience and preparedness is more crucial than ever Heat wave

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JULY 25: Rick White drinks water while cooling down in his tent in a section of the 'The Zone', Phoenix's largest homeless encampment, amid the city's worst heat wave on record on July 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. White said, 'The extreme heat is one thing, but the direct sun, it drains you quick...That sun will have you delirious.' While Phoenix endures periods of extreme heat every year, today is predicted to mark the 26th straight day of temperatures reaching 110 degrees or higher, a new record amid a long duration heat wave in the Southwest. Extreme heat kills more people than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined in an average year in the U.S. Unhoused people are at an especially high risk of heat-related illness or death. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Drastically cutting planet-heating pollution is the best long-term defense against heat and extreme weather, but the world is already committed to several decades of rising temperatures, Stone said.

In the shorter-term, there are ways to limit vulnerabilities.

Making the grid more robust and resilient is one, Stone said. This includes repairs and upgrades that take into account the climate of the future. Expanding and modernizing the grid, including adding more power plants and ensuring a diverse range of energy sources, will help strengthen it too, Webber said.

“But we also need to acknowledge that those grids will fail, and they are failing with greater rate of frequency, and so we need to have back-up plans,” Stone said.

That means rethinking cities, where heat-trapping concrete, steel and asphalt have replaced trees. Designing urban areas to be greener and cooler “can really increase grid resilience without investing in the grid itself,” he said.Climate Central’s Brady pointed to community solar projects, which can keep local power on when the grid goes down. Babcock Ranch in Florida — “America’s first solar-powered town” — managed to keep the lights on in 2022 when Hurricane Ian barreled through, unlike nearby towns.

Making homes more efficient will also help, Webber said. Homes better adapted to extreme weather can help reduce electricity demand when temperatures soar.

Ultimately, “we’re vulnerable because we’ve built our lives around conditioned air,” Webber said, living in places where life would be impossible without it. The stress extreme weather is putting on the grid shows “climate change is here and we need to be dealing with it.”

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