Blackouts + Heat Waves = Health Disaster

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Electrical blackouts like the ones in California are becoming more common. So are heat waves. A new study published in the journal of the National Institute of Health attempts to predict what will happen when both occur at the same time.

Here is the abstract from that study, written by lead author Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the School of City & Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology:

“The potential for critical infrastructure failures during extreme weather events is rising. Major electrical grid failure or “blackout” events in the United States, those with a duration of at least 1 h and impacting 50,000 or more utility customers, increased by more than 60% over the most recent 5 year reporting period. When such blackout events coincide in time with heat wave conditions, population exposures to extreme heat both outside and within buildings can reach dangerously high levels as mechanical air conditioning systems become inoperable.

“Here, we combine the Weather Research and Forecasting regional climate model with an advanced building energy model to simulate building-interior temperatures in response to concurrent heat wave and blackout conditions for more than 2.8 million residents across Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; and Phoenix, Arizona. Study results find simulated compound heat wave and grid failure events of recent intensity and duration to expose between 68 and 100% of the urban population to an elevated risk of heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke.”

Screenshot from Oncor power outage map, showing widespread outages.

Let’s repeat that, in case you missed it: “Study results find simulated compound heat wave and grid failure events of recent intensity and duration to expose between 68 and 100% of the urban population to an elevated risk of heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke.” Stone tells the New York Times such combined events are becoming “increasingly likely.” He adds, “A widespread blackout during an intense heat wave may be the deadliest climate-related event we can imagine.”

High Heat Is A Risk To Human Health

Here’s the deal, people. Humans thrive within a rather narrow temperature range. Without the benefit of clothing, we are pretty comfortable at somewhere between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Below 70 degrees, we can still be comfortable if we don pants and coats. Hats, gloves, scarves, and insulated boots can keep us going in frigid conditions. In the Dark Ages before the invention of the chimney, people slept with barnyard animals to keep warm at night.

But as the temperature increases, there is little we can do to stay cool short of living in a pool or using air conditioning. The problem is, air conditioning uses electricity — lots and lots of electricity. We have invented a new life style where we live in artificially cooled cocoons — cars, office buildings, shopping malls, even luxury skyboxes at the baseball stadium. But if there is no electricity, there is no air conditioning. The National Weather Service says the incidence of heat exhaustion and heat stroke begins to spike when indoor temperatures reach 32° C (89.6° F).

Computer Modeling

Stone and his colleagues at Arizona State, the University of Michigan, and the University of Guelph in Canada looked at data for three US cities — Phoenix, Atlanta, and Detroit. That data included information about building characteristics for every residential structure in each city including the age of the buildings, the construction material used, how much insulation they had, and the number of floors.

They then used computer modeling to determine what the temperatures in different neighborhoods would be if a heat wave occurred at the same time as a citywide blackout that disabled air conditioners. In Atlanta, more than 350,000 people, or about 70% of residents, would be exposed to indoor temperatures equal to or greater than 32º C. How likely is that to happen? According to the new research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, power failures have increased by more than 60% since 2015.

The results in other cities were similar. In Detroit, more than 450,000 people — about 68% of the city’s population — would be exposed to dangerously elevated indoor temperatures. In Phoenix the entire population — almost 1.7 million people — would be at risk. Few homes in Phoenix are without some form of air conditioning, but in Detroit, 50,000 residences lack cooling equipment.

Cities Can Only Protect 2% Of Population

All three cities have designated cooling centers, but the study found they could accommodate less than 2% of the population. None of the cities require those facilities to have backup generators to keep their air conditioning systems functioning during a blackout. “Based on our findings, a concurrent heat wave and blackout event would require a far more extensive network of emergency cooling centers than is presently established in each city, with mandated backup power generation,” the study authors concluded.

A spokeswoman for the city of Phoenix, Tamra Ingersoll, made light of the study, saying that if a blackout and a heat wave occurred at the same time, most residents would simply leave the city on their own — as if the temperatures outside the city would be magically cooler and those people all had someplace else they could go. She told the New York Times the city’s focus would be on vulnerable people left behind “such as the elderly, infirm or low-income individuals.”

Christopher Kopicko, a spokesman for the Detroit Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, said only one of his city’s 11 cooling centers has a backup generator, but the city has recently bought mobile generators that could be sent to cooling centers if they needed them. He added that residents could go to any of the city’s 12 police precincts, all of which have backup generators. Let’s be realistic, shall we? How many people with criminal records or who lack proper documentation are going to knock on the precinct house door in an emergency? Talk about tone-deaf. The office of the Atlanta mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, did not comment.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency referred to a plan from 2017 that addresses how to manage the effects of a long term power failure but does not address what will happen if a blackout and a heat wave occur at the same time. If that happens, the plan blithely notes that a “lack of power will create challenges to providing consistent heat or air conditioning and sufficient sanitation/hygiene in shelter or other mass care facilities.” Yeah, you think?

Millions Are At Risk From Combined Heat Wave & Blackout Events

Other cities across the United States are at risk from the threat of a combined heat wave and blackout. “We find that millions are at risk,” Stone says. “Not years in the future, but this summer.” [Emphasis added.] More renewable energy microgrids would help alleviate the situation, but that takes years of planning and permitting. More and better transmission lines that could bring in electricity from other states would help as well. However, even though there is a sizable investment tax credit for renewable energy projects, there is currently none for building new transmission lines. Perhaps that is something the Biden administration should consider in its infrastructure proposals.

Rex Tillerson, ex-head of Exxon and ex-Secretary of State, once dismissed fears about climate change, saying people will adapt. Rexie and his rich friends won’t have a problem, since they have all the money in the world — literally and figuratively — to live through any emergency. But for the other 99% of humanity, adaptation is something that takes place over tens of thousands of years, not overnight. Perhaps one day, humans will have cooling fins growing out of their skulls, Rex, but until then, people who lack access to unlimited financial resources will suffer grave health risks when heat waves and power outages occur simultaneously.

Featured image via NOAA.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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