- Climate change and soaring energy prices could make widespread blackouts more common, even in wealthy nations.
- Californians narrowly averted statewide blackouts, and Britons impacted by the war in Ukraine will soon pay nearly double for electricity.
- As energy costs soar higher, a new age of rolling outages and grid instability looms large.
Stock up on batteries, candles, and non-perishable snacks. Blackouts are coming.
For the first time in decades, the western world is preparing for widespread and rolling energy shortages. The US, UK, and EU have all been squeezed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, soaring costs for electricity and fuel, and record-breaking heat waves. While fall is just around the corner, the worst of the energy strain is likely still to come.
Even wealthy nations won’t be spared, at least without broad broad policy change and private-sector overhauls. Add in the accompanying economic costs and extreme health risks, and you have a very difficult situation.
In California, it will materialize as outage warnings and restrictions on your air conditioning. Then in coming years, Texans, Illinoisans, and Missourians will join the suffering of their west coast peers amid sweltering heat and rolling blackouts.
And across Europe and the UK, residents not used to heat waves will either face skyrocketing energy bills or dangerously hot summers — a situation made worse by their reliance on Russian gas, the flow of which has been essentially cut off entirely.
In the US, climate change risks decades of ‘extreme danger’
Amid record-high temperatures on the west coast Tuesday afternoon, California’s grid operator ISO urged residents to limit their energy use and cautioned that rolling blackouts could arrive.
The text alert worked. Emergency precautions lifted at 8 pm PT without the need for widespread blackouts. The utility added that residents’ energy conservation “played a big part” in bolstering the grid’s reliability.
The relief was short-lived. Just 15 hours later, the ISO issued another alert calling on residents to use less energy throughout the afternoon. Californians were encouraged to avoid using large appliances, unplug unused electronics, and set their thermostats no lower than 78 degrees.
“I can’t keep doing this,” Twitter user @sdfashionista3 wrote in response to the ISO on Thursday morning. “Been in San Diego my entire life never seen the temp this high at night even during a Santa Ana.”
And while the ISO’s Tuesday alert helped stave off rolling blackouts, more than 50,000 Californians experienced some form of a power outage that afternoon, according to data from poweroutage.us.
The strain on California’s power grid can be traced directly to climate change. Average temperatures have risen faster than residents’ heat tolerance, meaning Californians are running their air conditioning significantly longer than they did just years ago. Yet utilities companies and regulators haven’t bolstered the power grid accordingly, and soaring demand for electricity has pushed that infrastructure to the edge.
“Fossil-fuel based electricity has traditionally been seen as the most reliable,” Romany Webb, an associate research scholar at Columbia Law School and senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Insider. “But the combination of gas being in shorter supply and more expensive, combined with these climate impacts, highlight that that’s really no longer the case.”
The alerts, while helpful on Tuesday, underscore the looming threat facing California and other states with hotter climates. Roughly 8 million Americans are already expected to experience temperatures above 125 degrees in 2022, levels deemed to pose “extreme danger,” according to the National Weather Service. That count is expected to reach 107 million people in 2053 as climate change powers higher and higher temperatures, according to new research from First Street Foundation.
California won’t be alone. All of Illinois and Missouri are set to feature 125 degree days by 2053, the foundation found. Parts of 23 other states will land in the belt.
Without massive investment in overhauling the country’s energy grid, such heat waves could knock out power across states for days on end. That endangers millions who can’t afford to cool down with a generator or a pool. A lack of power will also lead to widespread food spoilage as freezers and refrigerators shut down.
Countless business owners will be forced to close up shop, and those staying open won’t get much traffic as Americans focus on beating the heat.
Americans requiring powered medical devices will be in the most immediate danger, especially as blackouts can come at a moment’s notice.
“If we don’t accelerate our action to mitigate climate change and prepare for the climate change that’s already happening, we’re likely to see more of these outages and have a less reliable grid,” Webb said.
Europe’s decoupling from Russian energy presents an impossible choice
The EU and UK’s energy problem has far more to do with their dependence on Russia. While the US can largely rely on its own energy commodities for power despite its struggles with its antiquated electric grid, western Europe leans heavily on Moscow for its natural gas and crude oil to keep prices steady.
The relationship, while rocky, lasted for several decades. That ended when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and sparked intense backlash from the West. The EU and UK quickly levied sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, unveiling plans to quickly reduce their purchases of Russian goods and find those commodities elsewhere.
The pivot hasn’t been an easy one. Western Europe has struggled with energy shortages throughout the year, and summer heat exacerbated the problem. Crippling heat waves emerged in the UK, Spain, Portugal, and France, with all-time-high temperatures causing large wildfires and thousands of deaths.
The hot spell was particularly dangerous because many affected countries “are not really trained to deal with the heat,” George Havenith, Professor of Environmental Physiology and Ergonomics of Loughborough University, recently told Insider.
The heat wave has since eased somewhat, but Russia’s retaliation to energy embargoes kicked off a new stage of pain. The UK and EU haven’t fully weaned themselves off of Russian gas yet, leaving energy in shorter supply as the Kremlin cuts off westward flows.
That’s left residents paying up for their everyday power needs. Britain’s energy regulator lifted its cap on annual energy bills to £3,549 — about $4,189 — starting October 1, nearly doubling the previous limit and up 178% from last winter.
The hike presents low-income Britons with an impossible choice: go into debt to maintain their basic energy use, or endure a blazing hot summer and frigid winter rife with blackouts and health hazards.
Immediate solutions are few and far between, but as climate change rages on, the impetus to reinforce electrical grids with renewable power and efficient energy storage grows stronger.
“Unless we recognize the serious risks that climate change poses to our electrical system, we’re likely to see more of these reliability issues,” Webb said. “It’s imperative that regulators, electric utilities, and system operators recognize that climate change is here.”