After decades of relatively stable electricity, several U.S. utilities now say that this summer, they won’t have enough power to get through a heat wave.1 Indeed, my utility recently warned ratepayers to expect rolling blackouts this summer.
With rolling blackouts, a utility might turn power off in one neighborhood for an hour, restore it, then cut another area’s power. Rolling blackouts tend to occur on hot evenings when people get home from work and school and blast air conditioners while cooking dinner, powering up desktop computers, recharging mobile devices, watching TV and doing laundry.
Rolling blackouts raise plenty of questions: What makes a utility unprepared to meet demand—when increasing numbers of households have bought “energy efficient” appliances, solar PV systems and electric vehicles? How do ratepayers prepare for blackouts? What can utilities and ratepayers do to prevent them?
What makes a utility unprepared to meet demand?
I’ve lived in New Mexico for more than thirty years, but my utility has never warned of blackouts before. What’s the problem? Do we have hotter temperatures and more air conditioners?
How/does my utility’s aim to close a coal-fired power plant and replace it with “renewables” affect its delivery of electricity? (Solar and wind provide only intermittent power. When the sun does not shine and wind does not blow, utilities draw on natural gas or coal reserves—or nuclear power or highly toxic batteries.) Does my utility no longer keep these fossil fuels in sufficient reserve? Does failure to recognize that “renewables” depend on fossil fuels and do not biodegrade at end-of-use contribute to our unsustainable power demands?
Last summer, when the state of California told people with electric vehicles to charge them during the day, I did not understand. Because like steady highway driving, steady delivery of electricity is most efficient. To balance heavy industrial daytime demands with lighter evening demands, utilities typically ask residential customers to do laundry and other energy-demanding stuff at night and on weekends. Why would California tell EV owners to charge during the day?
A professional engineer (PE) explained to me that rooftop solar customers (who send unused power to their utility) generate so much extra power that utilities sell it to other utilities—or pay them to take it. This is because if more power goes into the grid than gets taken off of it, the grid’s frequency increases (from 60 Hz in the U.S.). As a safety precaution, if the frequency increases enough, the utility’s protection system will shut down its generators. This PE hypothesized that having EVs charged during the day would help balance what goes into the grid with what’s consumed.
The problem further compounds, this PE explained, because on sunny days, solar PVs generate power from 11 am to 3 pm. This does not match up with power demands—which tend to peak between 4 and 9 pm.
In other words, adding new “renewable” technologies makes our grid more complex. It does not “transition” us away from fossil fuels (or extractions or toxic waste).
And this says nothing about the energy-intensive nature of manufacturing solar panel wafers.2 It says nothing about the perfluorinated chemicals (PFAs, the “forever” chemicals that do not get out of bodies or soil or groundwater) in a solar panel’s frame, front sheet, back sheet and encapsulant. .3-7 Do these PFAs make land underneath solar panels permanently unfarmable? Who monitors this? Who helps rooftop solar users deal with it?
What do we expect from electric utilities?
Most of us expect electricity 24/7 safely, reliably at just and reasonable rates. Now, we also want it “clean,” “fossil-free” and “sustainable.”
In reality, large-scale manufacturing of anything—including solar panels and industrial wind facilities—requires fossil fuels, extractions, smelting, water, intercontinental shipping of raw materials. Manufacturing anything generates CO2, methane, toxic waste and worker hazards.
In reality, “clean,” “fossil-free,” “sustainable” and “carbon-neutral” energy systems are not possible. They are marketing terms.
What can ratepayers do to prepare for blackouts?
If we respond to this question self-reliant household by self-reliant household, people of means and those with limited budgets will have different options.
To keep power and computers uninterrupted, well-to-do households can purchase generators, surge protectors and/or uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs). They can purchase laptops with long-life batteries—and keep them charged. They can buy a rooftop solar system with battery backup—and go off-grid.
Each of these options requires manufacturing new goods—which means increasing energy use, extractions, water use, CO2 emissions, toxic waste, international shipping and dependence on international supply chains. Buying any one of these options means living beyond our ecological means.
For better or worse, those with limited budgets do not have these options.
Last May, a friend in rural Pennsylvania—a website manager—lost power three times in one week. One day, she had no power for fourteen hours. Without electricity, she had no phone or Internet access. (Landlines are not available in her area, so she makes calls through a voice-over-Internet-protocol.) A diabetic, my friend filled her fridge with ice bags to keep her insulin chilled. “I ran errands,” she told me. “I cleaned the house. I napped. My contractor-husband worked on projects that did not require power tools. Basically, we let go our expectations of constant connectivity. We adapted.”
What can ratepayers do to decrease energy use?
We can take utilities’ warnings about blackouts as encouragement to become self-reliant. But like water, electricity is now a common good. Could we view these warnings as opportunities to work collectively—and reduce everyone’s blackout risks?
Could we paint rooftops with reflective paint?8 Could we encourage swamp coolers (and cleaning their filters) over (more energy-intensive) air conditioners? Could manufacturers develop something like space blankets for rooftops to reflect heat away from hot houses? Could we keep to already-installed telecom infrastructure and halt 5G and other energy-demanding upgrades?
Could we learn from cities and countries that routinely have blackouts? How do they allocate energy for hospitals, schools, households during seasons prone to blackouts?
Could we live with the question: For the common good, how do we reduce energy demands and blackout risks? If not, why not?
1 Halper, Evan, “Wheezing power grid creates summer blackout risk,” Washington Post, June 3, 2022.
2 Troszak, Thomas, The hidden costs of solar photovoltaic power, NATO Energy Security Centre, 2021.
3 North State Journal. (2018, February 16). Solar panels could be a source of GenX and other perfluorinated contaminants.
4 Arcella, V., Merlo, L., Pieri, R., Toniolo, P., Triulzi, F., & Apostolo, M. (2014). Fluoropolymers for Sustainable Energy. In D. Smith, S. Iacono, & S. Iyer (Eds.), Handbook of Fluoropolymer Science and Technology (pp. 393–412). Wiley Online Library.
5 Daikin. (2012). Business Review: Daikin Fluorochemical Products, in Chemwinfo.
6 AiT Technology. (2015). Transparent Encapsulating PVDF Front Sheet - AI Technology, Inc. AiT Technology.
7 Terreau, C., De, J., & Jenkins, S. (2014). Encapsulation of solar cells (USPTO Patent). Google Patents.
8 Kotecki, Peter, New York City has painted over 9.2 million square feet of rooftops white—and it could be a brilliant heat-fighting plan, Business Insider, Aug. 13, 2018.