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A lethal combination of energy shortages and searing heat is poised to generate enormous suffering in many parts of the world this summer, especially for the poor, the elderly, and those living in Asia, southern Africa, eastern Europe, and the American Midwest.
With a number of interconnected crises—from Russia’s war in Ukraine, to an energy-hungry pandemic rebound, to ongoing drought in many parts of the world—contributing to “historically low inventories” of energy, the advent of extreme summer heat bodes ill for billions of people, reports Bloomberg.
Suffering came early and cut deep for more than one billion people across South and Southeast Asia this spring, with extreme temperatures coupled with fragile energy systems continuing to cause daily blackouts for hours on end.
In India, more than 700 million people “have been grappling with outages of two to 10 hours a day”, meaning that life-saving fans and air conditioners, as well as the pumps for fresh water, are inaccessible for critically long periods of time.
One of the cascading effects of the region’s energy shortages has been a resurgence of its climate-killing coal industry. India’s government recently increased coal imports while removing the environmental protocols currently constraining domestic production, and Chinese authorities are pressing the country’s coal miners to increase their output to record levels.
“If blackouts persist, and businesses shutter, that will also bring huge economic shock,” added Bloomberg, recalling that a previous round of power shortages in India in 2014 led to a 5% drop in the country’s GDP.
Those shocks could also feed geopolitical instability.
“The main risk is that if we see major blackouts on top of all the aforementioned problems this year, that could trigger some form of humanitarian crisis in terms of food and energy shortages on a scale not seen in decades,” Eurasia Group analyst Henning Gloystein told Bloomberg.
While Europe is less likely to suffer blackouts, in part because fewer households use power-hungry air conditioning in the first place, “there’s little room for error,” with weakened hydro in Norway thanks to an unseasonably dry spring “extended outages at Électricité de France SA’s nuclear reactors” emerging as two of the region’s choke points.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s threat to cut off natural gas supplies could prove especially cruel to countries like Greece, Latvia, and Hungary, all of which are expected to experience rolling blackouts if Moscow makes good on its threat.
Elsewhere, a new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warns that the central and Western United States, or roughly two-thirds of the country, “will face elevated reliability risks this summer, as extreme temperatures, drought conditions, and higher peak demands challenge grid operators.”
Cyber threats, wildfires, supply chain issues, and “the unexpected tripping of solar resources during grid disturbances” are also significant concerns.
The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which covers 15 central states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, is expected to be at highest risk of running short on power. The region is already reporting a five-gigawatt shortfall, and peak demand is projected to rise at least 1.7% over last year. More 42 million people stand to be affected.
“Sobering,” is what John Moura, NERC’s director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, called the 2022 Summer Reliability Assessment, Utility Dive reports. “It’s clear the risks are spreading,” he said, “and the pace of our grid transformation is a bit out of sync with the underlying realities and the physics of the system.”
Dissecting the NERC report in its monthly meeting last week, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) members were divided as to the “key culprit” in the power reliability crisis, Utility Dive says in a separate report.
FERC commissioners Mark Christie and James Danly blamed a too-rapid shift away from fossil plants to renewables, an acceleration which Danly attributed to FERC’s “misbegotten project” to abide by increasingly green state energy policies.
FERC Chair Richard Glick replied that “calls earlier this month for energy conservation in Texas occurred after six gas-fired power plants went unexpectedly offline.”
Glick also highlighted the drought figures in NERC’s report, emphasizing that water shortages mean both less hydropower and fiercer wildfires.
The other reality is that America’s power grid is no longer in its prime. “The U.S. is experiencing more outages globally than any other industrialized nation,” Teri Viswanath, lead economist for power, energy and water at CoBank ACB, told Bloomberg. That’s because “about 70% of our grid is nearing end of life.”