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High temperatures strain US and European electricity grids

Many parts of the US and Europe are suffering from a heat wave that has put a strain on electricity infrastructure. In New York tens of thousands of people have suffered lengthy power cuts, triggered by excessive demand for electricity to run appliances such as air conditioning systems. In Missouri violent storms disrupted supplies.

In the UK wholesale electricity prices soared as unexpectedly high demand forced generation companies to bring oil-fired power stations back on-line to meet demand. Typically, the electricity network in the UK is put under most strain during the winter months with extra demand for electricity to heat and light homes. However, with temperatures rising a growing use of air conditioning is increasing the level of summer demand.

While scientist still debate whether these high temperatures can directly be attributed to climate change, they do give an indication of the negative impacts of the hotter summers that are expected to be more common as global warming effects increase.

These effects can be fatal. As of 21 July at least 22 deaths had been directly attributed to the hot weather in the United States. In France and Spain nearly thirty deaths have been blamed on the excessive heat. Over 27 thousand deaths were blamed on excessive heat in Northern Europe in 2004.

How can we respond? Clearly if electricity generators seek to increase their generating capacity it can only make matters worse if that capacity is based on fossil-fuel generation billowing out more carbon dioxide. The extra demand for electricity must be met through an increasing proportion of low carbon generation, such as nuclear.

Greater use of public transport could help too, but temperatures in London’s Underground trains soared to over 50 degrees Celsius – hardly an incentive to get out of cars with air-con. London Underground are responding by introducing trains with air conditioning, but this will increase electricity demand substantially.