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Brace for Blackouts in the Summer of COVID-19

So many people working from home with the AC on could strain grids coast to coast.

New York Daily News Archive/Getty

Quarantine is about to take a dark new twist.

Hot weather blackouts have long plagued neighborhoods and towns from New York to California to Texas. But now experts are warning that millions of Americans who are working from home or are unemployed—cranking their air conditioners as the temperature rises on sunny days—will only strain transmission lines and transformers further.

Energy producers and distributors are quick to point out that America’s overall power usage has plummeted since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the shuttering of large commercial and industrial buildings. But those structures usually sit on the most capacious portions of an urban electrical grid, said Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. By contrast, the power infrastructure in residential areas is typically designed to accommodate heavy use in the early mornings and evenings, with hours to cool off during the day. Consumption patterns in these districts have already changed during the crisis, with demand spiking in the daytime. Overall usage is already up by an average of 7 percent in New York City apartments, and by 15 to 20 percent in homes in California. 

As the summer heat peaks, and juice-sucking air conditioners remain on through the afternoon, the risk of failure in aged transformers and other equipment increases.

“The fact that Lower Manhattan is using less power is not going to help to deliver power to people in Queens, many of whom for health reasons may be intolerant to high temperatures, and whose buildings are connected to a very old transmission line with limited margins to carry extra power,” said Dvorkin. “What’s going to happen this summer, if we have stay-at-home orders, if we have consumption which the grid was not designed to accommodate, it will push the system to its limits.”

Even if governments continue to lift shelter-in-place orders, many private businesses and institutions will remain dark in the weeks to come—while their remote workers light up local electric networks. “If everyone plugs in at the same time, I worry about what’s going to happen,” the electrical engineer warned. 

Dvorkin recently received a federal grant to study the strain disease outbreaks put on New York City’s infrastructure, and he will deliver recommendations at a City Council hearing this week. The council’s Committee on Resiliency will also hear from Consolidated Edison, which was blamed for last year’s outage in Manhattan and for fires and power cutoffs in Brooklyn and Queens.

“Con Ed struggles to keep up with demand during a normal summer,” Councilman Justin Brannan, the committee’s chairman, warned.

Dvorkin and Brannan aren’t the only ones trying to spark discussion about the potential fallout of the pandemic, and New York isn’t the only state seeing a possibly dimmer future.

Lawrence Orsini, the San Francisco founder of the start-up LO3 Energy, has been posting warnings of COVID-exacerbated blackouts on his blog since early April. “Migration to the edge of the network” has occurred on both coasts, he noted, and will afflict many of the areas that saw their power cut during the rash of wildfires in 2019. Climate change-induced heat waves and windstorms sap the moisture from the air, while increased air-conditioner use in residential areas raises the chance for arc flashes and other hazardous short circuit effects.

“PG&E will absolutely have problems this year,” Orsini said, referring to Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s biggest and most embattled utility. “Distribution lines overheat. The transformer, which is usually located at the end of your cul-de-sac, can overheat. Because they weren’t designed to handle that kind of load.”

LO3 Energy’s products enable home power generation and the development of localized “micro-grids.” But according to Orsini, it’s already too late for a technological intervention to prevent your street’s electricity from going on the fritz this summer. What’s worse, he fears many people will avoid cooling centers for fear of contracting the virus when the power goes out, and will swelter at home in dangerous heat.

The only answer in the short term, he argued, is outreach.

“What we’re going to have to do is education and we’re going to have to do it pretty quickly,” he said. “We’re going to have to explain to people why it’s important to raise the temperature on their air conditioner, or to run it at night to cool the house down.”

Others aren’t so pessimistic. Peter Fox-Penner, director of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, agreed that the lockdown could cause “additional strains in capacity” in residential areas. But he pointed to California’s rapid mobilization to prevent blackouts as a model to follow this year. Under these “demand response programs,” utilities would coordinate with large commercial and industrial buildings to cut their consumption during high-usage periods during the day by turning down part or all of their lighting, cooling, and ventilation systems. Meanwhile, families at home could acquire smart thermostats that moderate power intake. 

“You can take the peak demand right down to normal levels,” Fox-Penner said. “If they reduce their demand, then that elderly woman with the window unit—she doesn’t have to.”

Pacific Gas & Electric did not respond to a request for comment. Con Edison acknowledged to The Daily Beast that the pandemic has already reshaped demand, and will continue to do so into the summer. But spokesman Allan Drury said that the company closely monitors its system, prepares for heat waves year-round, and is ready to deploy mobile generators to areas of excessive strain.

“If outages occur, we are prepared to respond efficiently and professionally and get customers back in service,” said Drury.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced this month that his administration has generators it can “pre-stage” to at-risk locations during heat waves.

Dvorkin is skeptical that these efforts will match increased residential demand. He urged Con Edison to collect demographic data on customers, without compromising their privacy, and use it to target safety check-ins and rapid repairs to those most likely to suffer from COVID-19 infection, heat stroke, and other health dilemmas.

At the same time, he encouraged New Yorkers to sign up for Con Edison’s SmartAC program; participants install a home kit that connects to an app through which the company can request they turn down or turn off their cooling unit.

“This cooperation will not only help Con Edison keep people healthy and comfortable,” Dvorkin said. “It may very well save lives.”

Even if mass blackouts don’t strike this year, experts predicted the novel coronavirus will have long-term ramifications for the nation’s power grid. Alexis Kwasinski, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Energy GRID Institute, predicted only the oldest and most depleted transformer and transmission infrastructure would suffer a meltdown in the coming months. But he worried that reduced commercial consumption would undermine power companies’ finances, and thus their ability to replace old components over the long-term—potentially leading to widespread failures in the future.

“It’s going to be something that over time, five years or so, is going to have an impact,” Kwasinksi said. 




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