I suppose that in the annals of headlines, Heatwave In July
ranks somewhere behind Man Bites Dog and ahead of Sun Rises In The East. But, add an ever-larger population, one that is "wired" to the gills, and the story becomes far more interesting.
2006 is already on course to be the hottest year ever recorded. The second half of July and the months of August and September could be doozies.
But what about the wired part? Most of America's electric grid -- the transmission lines that move electrons from a generating station to your area, with the exceptions of Alaska, Hawaii, Texas (not interconnected with the rest of the country) and the Southeast (smart politicians) -- is controlled by Independent System Operators (ISOs) for short. Electrical grids measure daily load, sometimes called demand, to determine how many electrons (MWh if you're being technical) were used on each day. Each ISO has a record load -- the highest load that it has ever served. In addition, ISO's have reserve requirements. Someone, often the electric company that sends you your bill, is responsible for buying not only all the electrons that you "demand" or use, but also an extra amount in order to ensure that if one plant or line goes down or if load were to go up more than expected, there would still be enough electricity. What often happens is that certain older, more expensive-to-run plants get paid to be on standby, ready to start producing power if needed.
All of which is a long way of explaining why Heat Wave In July really is an interesting headline. Yesterday, the California ISO
, the Midwest ISO
, the New York ISO
, and the Pennsylvania-Maryland-New Jersey (PJM) ISO
all hit record loads. New England ISO appears to have avoided a record peak load by a small amount yesterday, but hit one today
. Other areas of the country without ISOs may have hit record peaks as well; Texas did
. In other words, the entire national electric grid was severely stressed. A downed line or two, an emergency that required a few nukes to be shut down, a forest fire out of control in California and even the replacement reserve requirements wouldn't have prevented a blackout. And, as demonstrated rather painfully a few years ago, our electric grid is highly interconnected, not only with other parts of the US, but also with Canada and Mexico. An overloaded line or a marketer who defaults on its obligation to deliver power (because the spot price is too high and it's cheaper to default and pay damages than it is to procure the promised power) in one ISO can lead to blackouts in other ISOs as well.
So why were all those ISOs at peak load? Because of the freaking Heat Wave in July. And because of that large population that demands lots of electricity to not only keep cool, but to run its computers and lights and iPods and Blackberries and plasma screen tv, and refrigerators, and . . . . Well, you get the idea. We're teetering on the edge and if we make it through the entire summer without blackouts it will be due to dumb luck and some amazing folks working as linemen and dispatchers and plant operators.
What are the solutions? None of them are attractive. We can build more generating plants in your neighborhood, we can build more transmission lines across your backyard (which will at least move more of the power from where it's produced to where it's needed, or we can consume less (e.g., live without computers or refrigerators or iPods) or we can begin to sensibly limit population. What's likely needed is a combination of those factors.
But, in the end, we need to address why it's so freaking hot. It's so hot because of global warming, caused by carbon emissions. Which result from a dependence on oil, too large a population of humans, not enough trees (see above re too large a human population), and, ironically, the burning of even more fossil fuels to try to keep ourselves cool in all this heat.
Or, we can just keep doing what we've been doing. People in Iraq are reputed to be able to get by on a few hours of electricity a day and millions of people lived through Soviet-era electricity policies that resulted in erratic and infrequent electric service. As the NYT reported, several people died yesterday from the heat and the heat interrupted air and subway travel. But I suppose we can learn to live with such minor inconveniences.