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The Dartmouth
February 29, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Dunleavy: Fueling Our Downfall

Increased fossil fuel use to meet high energy demands will only compound extreme temperatures.

As climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of extreme temperatures, the need for climate adaptation places growing pressure on infrastructure. In the past few years, several power outages have occurred throughout the United States as city residents turned up the air conditioning or heating. Fossil fuel supporters blame renewable energy for the blackouts and propose increased use of fossil fuels to reliably meet higher energy demands. However, relying more on fossil fuels as a temporary solution will only exacerbate climate conditions causing blackouts.

Temperature extremes are rapidly increasing the frequency and duration of power outages. Since 2015, power outages in the US have increased by more than 60%  — which is largely attributed to climate change. California has had several summers of blackouts as grids were unable to meet the demand necessary to cool homes. This summer, record-breaking heat and demand, low wind generation and the sudden failure of six generators forced Texas’s grid operator to ask consumers to reduce their electricity usage. Last year, freezing temperatures in Texas caused mass power outages. The risk of a damaged grid and failure to weatherize infrastructure left 10 million Texans without power, $200 billion of damage and up to 700 people dead.

As electricity demand soars to power temperature control, the risk of grid failure increases due to short-circuiting and transmission line overloading. Additionally, extreme temperatures impair transmission lines’ capacity to carry power, decrease the efficiency of electricity generation and force power plants to shut down. In short, utilities are forced to choose between planned rolling blackouts or inevitable, uncontrolled statewide blackouts from grid failures.

Climate change intensifies natural hazards, among which extreme heat is the deadliest. Asking consumers to conserve electricity through behavior changes is not a long-term solution. Local officials’ pleas to decrease the burden on the power grid by conserving energy are met with responses of anger or refusal. Unwillingness to decrease air conditioning and heating is understandable. In heat waves, cities turn into deadly heat islands, reaching peak temperatures up to 20 degrees hotter than nearby areas. 

Opponents of the plan to rapidly decarbonize the nation’s energy system are quick to declare renewable energy as the cause of blackouts. Fossil fuel supporters may argue that fossil fuels are more reliable than renewable energy because these fuels may be stored in reserves for use in power emergencies, whereas  renewable energy only operates in certain weather conditions. These complaints are not unreasonable. After all, coal may be stored in warehouses for decades, while solar energy can only be stored in batteries for up to four hours. Due to their inconsistency throughout the daily cycle, wind and solar cannot be blackout resources — the power sources that restart grids following blackouts.

However, renewable energy is not the root cause of blackouts. Aging infrastructure and insufficient weatherization make it difficult for energy systems to hold up under the pressure of climate change. Fossil fuel-powered electricity plants are retiring at rates faster than power sources of any kind can be built. In California, record heat caused several natural gas power plants to break down. Conservatives were quick to blame frozen wind turbines for Texas’s winter power outage last year, but experts pointed to natural gas infrastructure failures as the natural gas production and pipelines froze in freezing temperatures. In some areas of the United States, particularly the Southwest, changing climates will force a renewable energy transition as current energy systems fail to adapt to new conditions. Megadroughts increasingly force coal and gas-fired power plants to reduce output or shut down due to their reliance on water. Hot and dry weather impairs coal, gas and nuclear generators as most models generate electricity by heating cold water to create steam. 

A combination of large national infrastructure investments and community initiatives can mitigate the intermittent nature of renewable energy. With large transmission grids that employ smart grid technology, electricity can be transported from areas with high potential for renewable energy to areas where renewable energy resources are less plentiful. For example, the Midwest, the East Coast and the West Coast have great wind energy potential, and the Southwest and Florida have the greatest potential for solar energy. Household and community solar panel use would lower energy costs and decrease electricity disruptions for those communities.

More importantly, continued reliance on fossil fuels to meet energy demand only contributes to the extreme weather causing blackouts. The electric power sector accounted for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions within the US in 2020. Scientists and experts have repeatedly found that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and are the leading cause of global warming. The increased temperature changes weather patterns, leading to higher frequency and intensity of droughts and wildfires, further driving up temperatures and impairing power generation operation. Warming in the Arctic also disrupts the polar vortex and weakens the jet stream, allowing icy air to escape the confines of the winds that usually maintain a boundary between the arctic weather and more moderate temperatures of the temperate and subtropical  zones. The polar winds dipping south then cause devastatingly cold winters in the mainland United States. As the climate continues to change, there will be more extreme weather events and resulting black outs.

Falling prey to anti-renewable energy rhetoric and increasing fossil fuel usage will seal the U.S.’s fate of skyrocketing temperatures and climate disasters. Greenhouse gas emissions must decrease to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. With thoughtful infrastructure investments and nationwide cooperation, renewable energy can be reliable and accessible.