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.