Coming Soon to Southern California: Rolling Blackouts

Every summer has its own story. For residents of Southern California, this summer’s story is going to include a chapter about rolling blackouts. The L.A. Times wrote the prequel earlier this month. To summarize, the natural gas leak this winter at the Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility has left Southern California short on natural gas, which means that, come summer, the region’s utilities could be unable to generate enough electricity to meet demand. To prevent the entire grid from, power managers will institute rolling blackouts by cutting electricity to certain individual sectors of the grid at moments of peak demand.

To many, the possibility of a blackout seems quaint. Who doesn’t enjoy the occasional candlelit dinner? And what parent doesn’t wish their kids would watch less television? The reality of blackouts, however, is deadly serious. Electricity provides us with more than just entertainment. We depend on it to, among other things, refrigerate our food, power hospital equipment, and illuminate traffic signals. We hardly notice it when it’s there, but without electricity are lives are much less safe.

Anatomy of a Blackout

Nice lights... be a shame if they went dark.
Nice lights… it’d be a shame if they went dark.

A lot of us might have a hard time conceptualizing how a natural gas leak in October can lead to a blackout the next July. The specifics of how we’ve arrived at our present situation underscore its gravity, however, so they’re important to understand.

The first step is to understand that demand for electricity does not remain constant throughout the day. Instead, it ebbs and flows like a tide. Demand is greatest in the summer, when air conditioners are in use (while homes can be heated using electricity, most use gas as it is more efficient). Day to day, we use the least electricity in the middle of the night, when we’re asleep and do not require lighting or the use of appliances. As we wake up and begin to turn on lights and appliances we begin to use more. Demand peaks in the afternoon and early evening, when air conditioners are working hardest.

To accommodate cyclical demand, electrical utilities draw from a variety of generation sources. Base load power plants operate near-continuously to provide the amount of electricity that is constantly in demand. These plants—usually coal or nuclear—are expensive and time-consuming to start up and shut down, but cheap to operate once in a steady state. The next tier of power plants—load following (or “mid-merit”) plants—strike a balance between start-up and operating costs, and thus increase and decrease their output cyclically to “follow” demand. In the western U.S., hydroelectric dams provide the ideal source of mid-merit electricity, which is why there are tides on the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River.

The final tier of power generation are “peaker” plants that only operate at times of peak demand. These plants can start up and begin providing electricity very fast and at little cost, but only because they burn more expensive fuels than base load or mid-merit plants. In the United States, peaker plants are almost always fueled by natural gas. This fact, that peaker plants burn natural gas, is the connection between a fuel leak in October and blackouts in July.

We established above that peak demand for electricity occurs during the summer months and is driven by the use of air conditioning. Unfortunately, the electricity that allows millions of businesses and homeowners to simultaneously turn on their air conditioners is provided by natural gas-fueled peaker plants. Thus, when there is a shortage of natural gas, there is a shortage of electricity at peak demand, which causes blackouts. That they occur when demand is greatest is what makes blackouts so dangerous. Consider this: peak demand occurs from the afternoon into early evening. Rush hour occurs at the same time, and would certainly be a bad time for traffic signals to go out.

Or, consider the driver of peak demand, air conditioning. While it certainly makes life less sweaty, for healthy adults A/C is arguably much more a pleasantry than a necessity. Healthy adults can easily survive even record-breaking temperatures with only a little lifestyle adaptation. But not all of us are healthy adults. Some of us are children, some of us are elderly, some of us are sick. For these groups, exposure to environmental extremes (such as in a heat wave) can be fatal. If you don’t think heat can kill, think again: More than 70,000 lives were lost in the 2003 European heat wave. Closer to home, 739 people died in only three days during the July 1995 heat wave in Chicago, Illinois. We strongly recommend this haunting account.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, climate change is real and the world is getting hotter. Each of the past six months has been the hottest on record. If this trend continues—and it will—this summer will be the hottest ever, and by a wide margin. Extreme heat and electrical shortages are a potentially deadly combination, and are, scarily, quite likely in Southern California this summer.

We Want You
…with an AirScape Whole House Fan!

How Whole House Fans Help

You may be wondering at this point, “what does any of this have to with whole house fans?” A lot! Since air conditioning is the primary driver of peak electrical demand, reducing its use is the most effective way to reduce peak demand and, by extension, the probability of blackouts. Simply turning off the air conditioning doesn’t help much though, because the outdoor temperature remains high. After all, we’re sure you’d still like to stay cool.

A whole house fan is one of the only ways to cool a home without air conditioning. Moreover, they do so much more efficiently. In fact, AirScape’s “e-series” line of whole house fans can cool even the largest homes using only a tenth of the electricity of A/C.

If you live in Southern California, installing a whole house fan, and using it in place of A/C as often as possible, is one of the best ways you can do your part to prevent blackouts this summer. You don’t even have to take our (admittedly biased) word for it: If you are one of their ratepayers, the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power offers a $200 rebate for installing a whole house fan. They do so because these devices work to reduce demand for electricity. And with such a generous rebate, we’re sure you’ll find a whole house fan pays for itself very quickly.

If you’d like to learn more about AirScape whole house fans, visit our website. You can also talk with any of our friendly, well-trained sale techs in person on the phone. We’re available anytime between 9:00 am and 5:00pm pacific time, Monday through Friday, at 1.866.448.4187. We’d love to help you find the right fan for your home, so you can start conserving electricity and saving money as soon as possible.