Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.
From Noah Long
Hot days and climate-related disasters are the times when we need reliable energy most, but all too often we experience power outages. Read on to learn why New Mexico has power outages, how to prepare and protect your family, and what your elected officials can do to keep the electricity running.
Why blackouts occur
When it's hot outside, many New Mexicans turn up the air conditioning. It's a natural instinct and an important way to protect yourself from the health effects of extreme heat. However, if we all turn up our air conditioning at the same time, our utilities will have to use other power plants in the region to provide enough electricity for the area. Extreme heat can also affect generation and transmission themselves, for example by heating the water used to cool power plants and reducing the efficiency of transmission lines. But what if not only our city or state experiences a heat wave, but the entire western region? Every utility company is already using all available power plants, and this combination of high demand and low supply carries the risk of blackouts.
In New Mexico and across the country, climate change is leading to hotter and more frequent heat waves, as well as higher average temperatures, meaning we are more exposed to these blackout risks than in the past. If we continue to increase CO2 emissions, our country could warm up another 5 to 10 degrees by the end of the century. However, it's important to remember that power outages are neither acceptable nor inevitable in our warming climate: they are the result of poor planning and a lack of adequate power supplies – both issues that we can address in the years to come.
How you can do your part in preparing for blackouts
Our colleague Noah Horowitz, who heads the NRDC's Center for Energy Efficiency Standards, has put together a number of tips to reduce the amount of electricity we need for our lives. By reducing our electricity consumption, we also reduce peak loads and the load on the grid, especially at times of the day when the sun is not shining and generating solar power or the wind is not blowing. And if we all step up, we can probably leave the lights on for everyone and avoid rolling blackouts. The following ideas from Noah fall into two categories: use less energy and move the time of day, we use energy-consuming devices.
- Intelligent cooling: During heat waves, air conditioning is a major source of electricity consumption. Some energy saving measures to consider: Raise the thermostat on your air conditioner to at least 78 degrees F for the next few days; Use a ceiling or portable fan in place of your air conditioner during times of the day when it isn't scorching hot. Also, remember to turn off the fan when you leave the room, close curtains and blinds during the day to keep the sun from heating up the room, and clean / replace the filter on your air conditioner. All of these steps can help reduce your power consumption.
- LED light bulbs: LED lamps use 6 times less electricity to produce the same amount of light as the old incandescent lamps. If you still have incandescent or halogen bulbs installed in your house, replace them with LEDs. This is vital as most of our lighting is used late in the day when little to no solar power is being produced. And more than ever, it is important to switch off the light when leaving the room and to dim it if possible, for example when watching TV in the evening.
- Reconsider when to operate devices: Large appliances such as washing machines, dryers and dishwashers are also large consumers of electricity. Only drive under full load and avoid operating the machine between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., the time when the electrical system is most heavily used. This “load shift” can really make a difference. Also, a clothes dryer that is really a big hair dryer in a box consumes a lot of energy. So consider drying your laundry on a clothesline.
- Use gadgets wisely: The number of consumer electronics installed in our homes has exploded. To minimize your power consumption: a) Make sure that the automatic shutdown functions are still activated on your computers, monitors and video game consoles; b) turn off the huge new TV when you are not in the room; and c) Do not stream movies through a game console, as it uses at least 10 times more energy than watching it through an app on your TV or through a low-power streaming device such as Roku or Apple TV. Always buy long-term devices, electronics and devices with the ENERGY STAR® label. So you can be sure that you are buying one of the more efficient models on the market. That will help lower your electricity bills for years to come, and the amount of electricity the state will need to produce, especially during prolonged heat waves – as we will see much more often due to climate change.
What your elected officials can do to keep the electricity flowing
Even as our local, state, and federal leaders try to tackle climate change, extreme heat – and the associated pressure on the power grid – will be part of our future here in New Mexico. We need to address this issue head on to make sure we keep the lights on and air conditioners on on the hottest summer days.
Our utilities and leaders need to factor in climate change and expected future weather when planning grid and power resources, and should model how the power system can handle different types of pressures on the grid. This planning and modeling helps to buy enough electricity on hot days. These leaders should also work towards a fully integrated Western grid that would allow us to coordinate the reserves of the backup power system more easily and at lower cost.
It also plays a huge role for local and state governments and utilities to weatherproof our homes and buildings to keep cool air indoors, which can cut utility bills every month and also help New Mexicans stay safe during summer power outages . Weather protection involves helping homeowners and businesses improve insulation, replace traditional air conditioning and stoves with efficient air source heat pumps, and expand demand flexibility programs that automatically manage electricity needs.
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