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Global warming could cause more electrical blackouts

A new study led by the American Geophysical Union has investigated the implications of increased use of household air conditioning due to climate change. According to the researchers, if states do not expand capacity or improve efficiency of the air conditioning industry, this climate-driven increase is likely to cause prolonged blackouts during peak summer heat.

Human-induced greenhouse gas emissions will likely increase global average temperatures by over 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels in less than a decade. Without urgent mitigation strategies, temperatures will most probably exceed the 2.0 degrees Celsius threshold by the end of the century.  

While previous research has examined the estimated impacts of global warming on annual electricity consumption or daily peak load for specific states or cities, this is the first study to analyze residential air conditioning demand on a household basis at a large scale. By incorporating observed and predicted air temperatures, humidity, and discomfort indices with air conditioning use by statistically representative households across the United States, the scientists have found that, without enough capacity to meet demand, energy utilities may have to stage rolling blackouts during heat waves to avoid grid failure.

According to the researchers, technological improvements of home air conditioning appliances will be necessary to supply the additional cooling needed to achieve comfort levels in an increasingly warm world and to avoid prolonged blackouts. 

“It’s a pretty clear warning to all of us that we can’t keep doing what we are doing or our energy system will break down in the next few decades, simply because of the summertime air conditioning,” said Susanne Benz, a geographer and climate scientist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In order to avoid frequent summer blackouts, an increased efficiency of one to eight percent of residential air conditioning appliances is needed, depending on existing state standards and the expected demand increase. For instance, the already hot southern and southwestern parts of the United States will most likely experience the largest increases in electricity demand. 

Thus, besides taking into consideration global climate changes, an efficient strategy to avoid electricity blackouts caused by increased use of air conditioning should also pay attention to local conditions, and take urgent measures to properly balance peoples’ comfort, electrical infrastructures, and climate patterns.

The study is published in the journal Earth’s Future.    

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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