The Energy it Takes to Keep Cool

The Energy it Takes to Keep Cool

Written by Natalie Manitius and Kimberly Clark

The increasing number of extreme heat days presents a challenge in the region to both decrease energy demand in order to prevent pressure on infrastructure and, at the same time, expand access to and the affordability of air conditioning to reduce the risks associated with extreme heat exposure.

To solve this challenge, reliable and resilient electricity infrastructure, coupled with investments in a climate-smart built and natural environment, will be critical. Interventions in both the physical and social infrastructure will need to create the needed support to manage extreme heat throughout the next several decades. There are possible policy solutions – we address them at the end of this post – but first, it’s important to understand the contours of the challenge ahead.

More heat, more infrastructure stress, dirtier energy, higher bills

Just in the last few months, cities and towns around the country have witnessed infrastructure pushed to the edge by intense and unpredictable extreme weather events reflective of a changing climate.

For several days earlier this year, Texas residents suffered a catastrophic loss of power after the local electric grid and energy suppliers were not equipped for the pressure a winter storm would put on their systems. Because Texas’ electric grid is isolated from the rest of the country, they couldn’t even receive emergency power from other regions.

In June and early July of this year, the Pacific Northwest broiled under record high temperatures. In Portland, streetcar lines had to be shut down as the cables melted in the heat.

Melted power cable in Portland

Melted power cable in Portland
Portland Streetcar Twitter

The extreme heat in Portland causes streets and sidewalks to buckle

The extreme heat in Portland causes streets and sidewalks to buckle. 
AccuWeather // Bill Wadell

Rising temperatures and extreme heat puts this stress on power plants and electric grids at the same time demand for energy is high.

Instances of sustained high energy demand are known as “peak demand events.” During the summer, MAPC tracks these peak events through data collected by ISO New England, our regional electricity grid system operator. Our peak demand so far for this summer has been 25,159 megawatts, and it occurred on June 29 from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. – much earlier than last year’s peak of 25,121 MW on July 27, 2020.

Example MAPC Peak Demand Notification from summer 2021
Example MAPC Peak Demand Notification from summer 2021

Utilities charge large facilities based on their energy demand during the peak event every year. They do this because a utility must build its system to be able to meet this maximum demand for energy whenever it happens. Surging demand in one year, therefore, can cause a customer’s electricity bills to spike in the next. In turn, reducing demand during the hottest days of the summer can save money year-round.

Reducing and limiting peak demand events is also important because the extra high demand can make it necessary for utilities to run additional “peaker” power plants, which are often some of the dirtiest fossil fuel generation units we have. Fewer peak demand events can ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help to right-size our electric grid system, since less energy would be needed to meet maximum demand.

In order to decrease peak demand and keep the grid as a whole from failing, utilities ask their customers to cut back their energy usage. In some cases, utilities enact rolling blackouts. During heat waves earlier this summer, New York and California sent emergency notifications asking their residents to reduce their electricity use if possible.

While relying on individuals to reduce their energy usage during peak hours is one part of the solution, we must also work to build reliable infrastructure and transition to renewable energy in order to meet current and future electricity needs.

Committing to resilient infrastructure means investing in energy storage technologies, building microgrids that can operate within the grid or independently, optimizing energy efficiency, and increasing renewable energy and clean energy technologies, such as cold-climate heat pumps, so we can depend less on heavily polluting energy sources.

In addition to MAPC’s Peak Demand Notification program, a few Mass Save and state programs in Massachusetts are starting to enable these investments, such as the ConnectedSolutions program, which draws on solar battery storage from residents and businesses during peak demand periods, and the Clean Peak Energy Standard, which requires that a minimum percentage of electricity retailers' sales are produced from clean energy technologies.

More heat, inequitable access to cooling

With Massachusetts’ historically temperate climate, cooling in homes, schools, and public buildings has been seen as more of a luxury than a necessity. However, in our warming climate, cooling is now critical to keep people safe. The number of days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit has increased dramatically in the last few decades. From 1971 to 2000, Massachusetts had on average four days above 90 degrees a year. In 2020, there were 14 days over 90 degrees, and, by 2030, that’s predicted to more than double. These days of extreme heat are occurring earlier in the season, for longer periods of time, and at more intense temperatures.

We know, however, that there are patterns of unequal access to cooling and higher cost burdens on low-income communities and communities of color. In 2019, MAPC conducted a climate vulnerability analysis based on a community’s level of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. The analysis found that 13 percent of the Metro Boston region’s residents live in heat-vulnerable census tracts.

Families and individuals without access to AC are more exposed to the dangers of extreme heat, which include heat exhaustion and heat stroke. At the same time, low-income families face higher energy burdens, meaning they spend a higher percent of annual income on energy costs. Those with a higher energy burden may avoid using AC on hot days or peak hours due to the expense, leading to unsafe exposure to extreme heat.

In addition to physical infrastructure, we need to ensure that the social infrastructure is in place to enable an equitable and just energy burden across all communities. Strong social infrastructure includes programs that provide weatherization and utility assistance, access to cooling centers, policies that increase access to various forms of cooling, and collaboration with community-based organizations on the ground.

Possible Policy Solutions

A few quick policy recommendations toward this goal to start thinking about:

  1. Increase access to renewable energy. The price of renewable energy is often not competitive with carbon-based fuels, due to a number of factors. By making renewable energy more cost-competitive, such as through carbon pricing, higher incentives in state programs like SMART and the Alternative Portfolio Standard, leveraging a Green Municipal Aggregation program, or internalizing the social costs of carbon into the pricing for fossil fuel sources, more consumers will be motivated to make the switch to electricity that is less harmful to people and the environment.
  2. Expand utility debt forgiveness. Nationwide, up to $40 billion has accumulated in utility debt during COVID. After a pandemic that pushed many families into poverty, additional debt forgiveness programs and options will be essential as we start to move forward.
  3. Extend the utility shutoff moratorium. The utility shut-off moratorium allowed COVID-affected individuals and businesses to defer utility bills without fear of losing service. Extending the moratorium would provide relief to those who are still feeling financial pressure.
  4. Reduce the use of peaker plants. Expand access to active demand management programs and increase the deployment of efficient clean energy technologies, including clean heating and cooling systems such as cold climate air-source and ground-source heat pumps and solar hot water.
  5. Ensure low-and-moderate income residents are protected from utility bill spikes and have full access to clean energy systems and benefits.
  6. Get involved with the Mass Save 3-Year Plan to have your say in the Energy Efficiency Advisory Council’s (EEAC’s) priorities for the next plan.
  7. Advocate for a modernized electric grid in New England. Advanced metering infrastructure would enable Massachusetts homes and businesses to receive more timely price signals to reduce load or shift their electricity use to times when overall grid use is low.