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Know the West

Climate change wreaks havoc on the electricity grid

Heat and drought combined are especially harmful to the power system.

In late June, a blistering heat wave settled over the Pacific Northwest, shattering high-temperature records from California to Canada. Hundreds of outdoor laborers or those who lacked air conditioning were hospitalized for heat-related ailments, and dozens died. Portland’s transit operator suspended rail service because of heat-damaged cables, while highways in Washington were closed due to buckling asphalt.

 

But the heat’s biggest — and perhaps most consequential — infrastructure victim was the vast electricity grid that powers nearly every aspect of modern life, including potentially life-saving air conditioning. Extreme weather exacerbated by climate change can mess with the grid in any number of ways: Cold can freeze gas lines, while hurricanes topple transmission towers. But heat, particularly when combined with hydropower-depleting drought, has an especially deleterious effect, wreaking havoc on the power system just when the warmer climes need it most.

Meanwhile, power plants — the fossil-fueled “heart” of the grid — make climate change worse and the planet even warmer, creating a feedback loop that resembles a gigantic electrical monster swallowing its own tail.

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Illustrations by Abbey Andersen/High Country News

Sources: California Independent System Operator (CAISO); Energy Information Administration; California Clean Energy Almanac; Bonneville Power Administration.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.