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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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How Phoenix's Heatwave Is Challenging Energy Systems

  • Phoenix is currently experiencing a historic 20-day streak of temperatures above 110 degrees, an extreme weather event attributed to climate change and increased carbon dioxide levels.
  • The reliable operation of Phoenix's power grid, which includes the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S., has been essential in preventing potential health crises during this heatwave.
  • The persistence and severity of these heatwaves suggest a concerning future trend for Phoenix, emphasizing the need for robust energy systems and comprehensive climate action.

For the past decade, I have lived in Phoenix, Arizona. People sometimes ask what it’s like to live here. I tell them that it’s great from about mid-October to mid-April. We have very pleasant weather then.

But it’s an entirely different story in the summer. From May through September, it’s really hot. Right now, we are in the midst of a 20-day streak of 110 degree plus weather.

I went outside at midnight a couple of nights ago. The temperature was still 100 degrees. I think the low temperature that night was 97 degrees. I walk outside in the morning, and it’s already 100 degrees. When the wind blows, it’s like standing in the exhaust of an oven.

There’s yardwork I have to do, but I have to take it in small increments. It only takes about 20 minutes in this heat, and I am drenched in sweat — and I am not someone who easily sweats. If I take a “cold” shower, the water coming out of the tap is over 90 degrees.

Phoenix has been under a heat warning for the past three weeks. This current heatwave is record-breaking, dangerous, and getting worse.

El Niño Plus Climate Change

Why is this happening? The simple answer is climate change, and here in the desert I feel like we are getting a preview of things to come. But I still have friends who don’t accept that manmade climate change is real. They will (rightly) point out that this is an “El Niño year”, when a band of warm ocean water increases temperatures.

That’s true, but we have always had El Niño years. What we have in addition to that is an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that has grown from around 320 parts per million (PPM) in the 1970s to over 420 PPM today.

Because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, it is a simple scientific fact that rising carbon dioxide will trap more heat. We can debate about how much the climate might be impacted, but there’s no credible debate that there’s an impact. Once that is understood, then we can understand why the summertime temperatures in Phoenix keep rising.

It wasn’t always like this. I have heard many people here say the climate was more pleasant in the 1970s. The data backs them up. The average annual high in the 1970s was at least two degrees lower in Phoenix than it is today (source), and the average annual low was around six degrees cooler. That may not seem like a lot, but when you consider summertime highs plus an El Niño year, it explains why we are presently breaking heat records.

A Reliable Power Grid is a Lifesaver

If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that we don’t suffer many blackouts in Phoenix. I have never been without power for an extended period in my home. We have a nice mix of power sources, including the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which is the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S., and the 2nd largest of any U.S. power plant.

A reliable power grid here is critical, because a recent study predicted that rolling blackouts in Phoenix could lead to 12,000 deaths and nearly 800,000 people being treated for heat-related illnesses. Thus, it is also really important for those who live here to know what to do if that rare blackout does impact us during a heatwave.

There are potential solutions, but none are easy, and none are quick. Those two factors have prevented us from taking aggressive actions that could reverse the rising temperature trends.

It’s been monsoon season here for a month, and those storms can bring some relief. But so far, it’s been bone dry. And while blackouts could leave thousands dead without air conditioning, our power grid still holds steady for now.

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To survive this sweltering summer, we have no choice but to blast the AC and hope we avoid disaster until October. But unfortunately, these hellish heatwaves may become Phoenix’s new normal.

By Robert Rapier 

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  • DoRight Deikins on July 27 2023 said:
    «The average annual high in the 1970s was at least two degrees lower in Phoenix than it is today (source), and the average annual low was around six degrees cooler.»

    Have you heard the term "urban sprawl"? How many people live in the Phoenix area now in comparison to the 1970s? How much farther has it spread? How much more concrete has been laid? How many more houses and airports and buildings of all sorts have been built?

    Of course it's gotten hotter, day and night. Asphalt and concrete retain heat amazingly well. In fact, in Khandahar, Afghanistan (a similar climate to Phoenix) the adobe walls are 3 foot thick so that the houses stay cool in the day and warm at night as the heat cycles in and out of the walls. That was the traditional house in Arizona in the past also.

    AC units are notoriously inefficient and put out huge amounts of heat. Actually practically all of the electricity generated by whatever means eventually ends up as heat. The desert outside Phoenix (way outside) is considerably cooler at night than Phoenix and its surrounding sprawl. I wonder why?

    I'm sorry for your struggle with heat; I have many good friends in the Phoenix area. And I pray that yours and their grid stays up. But it's easy to blame problems on others rather than ourselves and our lifestyles. Unfortunately, the solutions often cause worse problems.

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