Climate change is bringing more extreme temperatures —- the last decade was the warmest on record. Scientists say that pattern will continue.
In Louisiana, temperatures could increase by 10 degrees by the end of the century. Heat stresses human health and the electric grid. How prepared is New Orleans for the heat?
On a hot summer day, 69-year-old Joseph Williams is mowing his lawn in the Lower Ninth Ward. Sweat beads on his upper lip. He unstraps his arm from the lawnmower, which he’s using for stability. He’s disabled, and it’s hard to walk. He’s lived here for 15 years, and says this summer has been hard. “It’s hotter this year...just gotta deal with it.”
He plans to head inside when he’s done and cool down in the air conditioning. But it’ll cost him. He says his bill can get as high as $400, which is a lot, since he’s living on disability.
As temperatures continue to rise, people are going to rely on air-conditioning more to stay cool. That takes electricity. And all over the country, the systems to get electricity from power plants to houses are aging.
Steve Clemmer is a researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He published a report on how climate change will affect electric grids. “Most of them are old — a lot of them were built in '60s — and there hasn’t been enough investment in transmission and distribution lines in recent history,” says Clemmer.
Last year, according to data from Entergy, there were more than 2,000 power outages in New Orleans – some were caused by bad weather – but most were due to old equipment falling apart. Clemmer says that’s a lot of outages.
Then there are the hurricanes. “We looked specifically at sea level rise and storm surge...and we found that there is a really high potential for widespread outages because so much of that equipment is vulnerable to flooding.”
Examples of this equipment include substations, where high voltage power is stepped-down before it heads down the power lines to your house.
Logan Atkinson Burke is director of the consumer and environmental advocacy group, Alliance for Affordable Energy. Standing under leaning electric poles in Lakeview, she says there are solutions to some of these problems. “Raising and lifting some of that infrastructure could be a good way to solve it, but that is not a cheap solution and customers have to pay,” says Burke.
It’s not just crooked poles and low-lying substations that are threatened by storms and flooding, people are also going to be using more power as they crank up the air conditioning. As demand increases, efficiency decreases, and it’s harder for the power lines to transport the energy.
Entergy says the controversial power plant it has planned in New Orleans East will help with some of these problems, but Burke says the company should be spending money on replacing old poles and raising equipment.
She doesn’t think that will happen quickly, “so in the very short term, let's say five years, we can expect likely more outages.” She adds, “I hope that in the longer term as we start to make those upgrades to our energy system that we can have a more resilient grid.”
Entergy declined an interview, but says it plans to spend about $50 million on grid improvements. City council has criticized the company for moving too slow.
In the meantime, extreme heat may harm the most vulnerable people — the elderly, disabled and children.
Maureen Lichtveld is a professor at Tulane’s school of public health. “The worst is that people die because their houses aren’t that well ventilated...there's also dehydration, particularly of workers who are outside.”
She says officials tend to see extreme heat as a distant problem, but the city should act now. “We should elevate climate and health the same way we get prepared for hurricanes” says Lichtveld.
In the meantime, Joseph Williams is resigned to deal with the heat. He says, “Ain’t nothing I can do. That’s God’s will. If he wants it hot, it’s going to be hot, if he want it cold, it’s going to be cold.”
In a Climate Action Plan published last year, the city estimates that the average number of 95-degree days in New Orleans could increase by five times by the end of the century.
This series is a collaboration with The Lens. Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana.