This summer scorching heat waves have put immense strain on power grids across the country, leading to record-high demand for electricity. This increasing demand, coupled with aging infrastructure and the effects of climate change, has resulted in a rising number of grid emergencies and an increasing risk of blackouts. In an effort to alert grid operators to possible vulnerabilities from high temperatures, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation releases an annual Summer Reliability Assessment, which gauges the grid’s future readiness in anticipation of seasonal demand peaks. The Washington Post  even developed a tool to track how many Americans are under heat advisories across the country daily. It estimates that over 100 million people will be exposed to dangerous temperatures in the last weekend of July 2023.1

Since July 1st, in what will be its longest and most intense heat wave in the city’s history, Phoenix, Arizona has baked for 31 consecutive days. While on the other side of the country, the Mid-Atlantic power grid operator, PJM Interconnection, issued a Level One emergency2 on July 27 due to extreme heat, necessitating the activation of contingency reserves to maintain grid stability. As these examples underscore, it is critical to develop solutions that will strengthen our nation’s grid to withstand these extreme heat events.

Ultimately, reliability will be most effectively secured through “a portfolio of technologies and strategies.” Here, we discuss why robust transmission infrastructure is a key element to avoiding blackouts during periods of extreme heat.

1. Enhanced Transfer Capacity and Resilience

A transmission system equipped to efficiently handle periods of peak demand can mitigate blackouts risks during heat waves. By enhancing transfer capacity and redundancy, the grid can distribute power more effectively, relieving stress on specific regions, providing backup for generation that fails to perform, and preventing localized overloads.

2. Access to Diverse Energy Sources

One of the key advantages of a robust transmission network is its ability to connect regions with diverse energy sources. During heatwaves, electricity demand is often driven by increased air conditioning usage. By integrating broader geographic areas with abundant mixes of energy resources into the grid, power generation can be diversified, ensuring a more stable energy supply during peak periods. A diverse energy generation mix ensures that weather or variable-related disruptions in generation to a specific type of generation or region will not compromise the entire grid.

3. Grid Coordination and Regional Cooperation

A well-connected transmission network enables grid coordination and regional cooperation among utility companies and regions. During heatwaves, where demand surges are widespread, sharing resources and coordinating response strategies can help balance the load across the grid. This collaborative approach enhances stability and minimizes the risk of blackouts in individual areas. The process works by “exporting” power from a low-demand or high-supply region not affected by a heatwave to a region experiencing  high power demands. This cooperation is also effective in extreme cold weather events.

4. Smart Grid Technologies

Transmission infrastructure paired with the implementation of Smart Grid technologies is essential in managing electricity demand and supply during extreme heat events. Smart grid technologies allow for real-time monitoring of electricity flows and consumption, allowing grid operators to identify potential bottlenecks and redistribute electricity efficiently. By optimizing load distribution and reducing energy wastage, smart grids can help prevent blackouts and improve overall grid reliability. 

In addition, smart grid technology will give customers and utilities unprecedented access to energy consumption data, increasing transparency and improving outage response time. Smart grids will use real-time data to automatically detect and isolate outages, immediately rerouting power to prevent minor disruptions from escalating to widespread blackouts while notifying grid operators if physical damage to energy infrastructure occurs. Smart grid technology will improve our ability to detect, address, and mitigate against grid disruptions–whether from extreme weather or outside attack–amplifying the positive impact of new transmission lines on reliability, grid resilience, and national security. 

The recent declaration of a Level One emergency by PJM highlights the urgency of addressing the challenges posed by extreme temperatures and increasing energy demands. Investing in a modern and resilient transmission infrastructure is critical to avoid blackouts during heat waves and other extreme weather events. Such a system can strengthen transfer capacity and stability, promote the integration of diverse energy sources, and foster regional cooperation.

By taking proactive measures to strengthen our transmission infrastructure, we can mitigate the risks of blackouts and create a more sustainable and reliable energy future. The path ahead involves a collaborative effort between FERC, DOE, utilities, RTOs, and Congress to ensure transmission is built that can withstand the challenges of a changing climate. Only through such forward-thinking measures can we safeguard our energy security and ensure the well-being of citizens during periods of extreme heat.

  1. The Washington Post model is based on data from the National Weather Service and National Digital Forecast Database. Model was accessed on July 28, 2023.
  2. The Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems classifies a level 1 emergency as “failure of the equipment to perform could result in loss of human life or serious injuries” Emergencies are ranked from level 1 to 3, with 3 being the most severe level signifying a manual loss of electric load.