In the midst of 425 months in a row of above average global temperatures, relentless summer heat is setting some stunning temperature records across the Northern Hemisphere.
The Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, which sits inside the Arctic Circle, recorded a daytime temperature of 100.4°F on June 22, the latest spike in a six-month long heatwave. Just for orientation, at that latitude in the west, you’d be at the northern edge of Hudson Bay in Canada. On that same day, Verkhoyansk beat Tamanrasset Algeria’s 98°F, a city pretty squarely in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
Summertime temps are in full swing in the United States, and Europe is starting to feel the thermometers rise as well. Forecasts expect record heat and droughts across both continents this summer.
As it does every year, the heat is expected to drive significant amounts of energy demand as people stay inside to keep cool. COVID-19’s stay-at-home effects will only add to the situation. But the energy implications of summer don’t stop there. Other forces affecting electricity demand are in play.
Frying the Electric Grid
An underappreciated effect of intense heat is the many different ways it impacts the power grid and the electricity that flows to our homes and businesses.
When the outside heat is high, electric transmission lines carry less electricity, power plants and solar panels generate less electricity and even air conditioning units run less efficiently at full power. All this inefficiency adds up quickly and means that a substantial part of what is generated is just spilled along the way.
This turns into higher costs for everyone as demand spikes, and the cumulative inefficiency sends power market prices climbing. The resulting added emissions for the same amount of power actually delivered also make electricity a less attractive energy source during the increasingly dogged days of summer.
The heavy load on our aging electric grid can lead to severe consequences. Grid strain and heatwave-induced demand spikes have led to cascading grid failures like the Northeast blackout of August 2003 (which impacted 45 million people), stranding customers, hospitals and refrigeration-dependent businesses when they needed power most. And the 2018 Camp Fire in California, caused by faulty electric transmission lines, turned into the deadliest, costliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Insulating from Grid Volatility
How do we insulate the grid from all of this stress?
First and foremost – actual insulation. Conservation measures are the best option for reducing grid strain by insulating buildings and upgrading windows. Nearly 30% of the power consumed in a home is wasted, and better insulation can cut that down considerably. With some upfront capital, the return on investment comes quickly in the form of reduced utility bills every single month for the life of these upgrades.
After the doors and windows are sealed up right, the next smart conservation step is to improve the performance of appliances. While cooling can make up nearly half of a home’s energy use, especially in a heatwave, high-intensity appliances consume almost a third of a typical home’s energy.
The underlying physics of energy conversion show why this is true. When electricity is generated, typically from fossil fuels, it is burned to heat water that drives a steam turbine to create electricity. The electricity is then transmitted across the grid, where line losses and heat waste additional energy. When it reaches your appliance, it must be converted back into heat again, typically through resistance in an electric coil (which is literal waste heat). Each step along the way creates inefficiencies and waste. Burning fuel to power a turbine, transmitting through the grid, and multiple energy conversions mean only 40% of the energy consumed initially actually does any work, and it’s even less efficient on a hot day. It’s worth stating plainly as the Energy Information Administration has recently done: fully 60% of the energy used to generate electricity is pure waste.
Unplugging these high-intensity loads from the grid and replacing them with non-electric appliances can improve efficiency and reduce grid stress. Especially if heat and hot water is what is desired in the end, the most efficient way to deliver that kind of energy is to produce and consume it directly onsite – saving money, lowering the carbon footprint, and shielding the grid from volatility and blackouts. Propane, in particular, is a premium, refined version of natural gas, that delivers off-the-grid energy appliances need with terrific efficiency.
Electric vs. Propane Water Heaters
When it comes to performance for heating water (almost 15% of daily energy use), the comparison between propane and electric isn’t even close. Propane hot water heaters outpace electric counterparts by nearly every metric: they’re more efficient, more compact, operate less expensively and do so with a lower carbon release. And since they’re off-grid, they bring the added bonus of reducing electricity infrastructure stress.
Propane vs. Electric Cooking
Professional chefs prefer gas ranges to electric for fast temperature control, efficient cooking, inexpensive maintenance, cleaning simplicity and the ability to work with nearly all cookware. You don’t have to be a professional chef, however, to appreciate a reduced utility bill and lower carbon footprint. And in the event of a blackout, you can still prepare food.
Dryers and Dishwashers
Dryers and dishwashers use a substantial amount of energy. They make daily life much easier but pull a lot of electricity when in use. For the all-electric versions of these appliances, the power required can actually produce spikes or surges. Converting water heaters and dryers to propane prevents electricity spikes from further stressing the electric grid.
De-stressing the Grid
The electric grid is an engine powering our lives today, but that doesn’t mean 100% dependence on electricity is the best decision for powering homes and buildings.
When the grid loses stability and shuts down, which is increasingly frequent as extreme heatwaves, hurricanes and wildfires impact it, having a distributed energy system –– electricity paired with propane –– is a smart move and a great investment. The combination dramatically improves efficiency, eliminates the single-point-of-failure risk of all-electric setups, reduces overall electric grid stress, and helps us all move toward a lower carbon future.
About the Author
Tucker Perkins, President and CEO
Tucker is an engineer, entrepreneur, business leader, speaker and is now the president and chief executive officer of the Propane Education & Research Council. He has worked in the propane industry nearly his entire professional career, having served as the director of business development for Inergy, chief executive officer of Premier Propane, and the chief operating officer of Columbia Propane, a unit of the Columbia Energy Group. Tucker is also the former chairman of a PERC advisory committee on engine fuel matters and is active with the National Propane Gas Association and the Virginia Propane Gas Association.