Power Outages in New Mexico: Why Now & How to Stay Safe

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Originally published on NRDC Expert Blog.
By Noah Long

Hot days and climate-fueled disasters are the times we need reliable power the most, yet all too often, that’s when we experience blackouts. Keep reading to learn about why New Mexico is experiencing blackouts, how to prepare and protect your family, and what your elected officials can do to keep the power on.

Why Blackouts Occur

When it’s hot outside, many New Mexicans turn up the air conditioning. It’s a natural instinct, and it’s one important way to stay safe from the health effects of extreme heat. However, when we all turn up our air conditioning at once, our utilities have to call on other power plants in the region to provide enough power to go around. Extreme heat can also affect generation and transmission itself, such as by heating up the water used for cooling power plants and reducing the efficiency of transmission lines. But what about when it’s not just our city or state experiencing a heat wave, but the entire Western region? Every utility is already using all available power plants, and this combination of high demand and low supply puts us at risk for blackouts.

In New Mexico and across the country, climate change is leading to hotter and more frequent heat waves as well as higher average temperatures, which means we’re facing these blackout risks more often than we did in the past. If we continue to increase carbon pollution emissions, our country could warm an additional 5 to 10 degrees by the end of the century. But it’s critical to remember that blackouts are neither acceptable nor inevitable in our warming climate: they are due to a lack of planning and a lack of sufficient electricity to go around — both problems we can address in the years ahead.

How to Do Your Part to Prepare for Blackouts

Our colleague Noah Horowitz, who directs NRDC’s Center for Energy Efficiency Standards, compiled a series of tips to decrease the amount of electricity we need to power our lives. By reducing our electricity use, we also reduce peak demand and stress on the grid, especially during times of the day when the sun isn’t shining and generating solar power or the wind isn’t blowing. And if we all step up, we can probably keep the lights on for everyone and avoid rolling blackouts. Noah’s ideas below fall into two categories: using less energy and shifting the time of day we use energy-consuming appliances.

  • Smart cooling: During heat waves, air conditioning is a large source of electricity consumption. Some energy-saving actions to consider: raise the thermostat on your A/C to at least 78 degrees F for the next few days; during periods of the day when it’s not blazing hot, use a ceiling or portable fan instead of your A/C. Also, remember to turn off the fan when you leave the room, close drapes and blinds during the day to keep the sun from heating up a room, and clean/replace your air conditioner’s filter. All these steps can help cut your electricity consumption.
  • LED light bulbs: LED bulbs use 6 times less power to generate the same amount of light as the old incandescent versions. If you still have incandescent or halogen bulbs installed in your home, replace them with LEDs. This is critically important as most of our lighting is used late in the day when little to no solar power is being generated. And more than ever, it’s important to turn off lights when you leave the room and also to dim them when you can, such as when watching TV in the evening.
  • Rethink when to run appliances: Large appliances, such as clothes washers, dryers, and dishwashers, are major electricity users too. Only run full loads and avoid running the machine between 3 and 10 p.m., the period when the electric system is most stressed. This “load shifting” can really make a difference. Also, a clothes dryer, which is really a big blow dryer in a box, uses lots of energy so consider drying your laundry on a clothesline.
  • Use gadgets wisely: There has been an explosion in the number of consumer electronics installed in our homes. To help minimize their electricity use: a) make sure the auto power down features are still enabled on your computers, monitors, and video game consoles; b) turn off that massive new TV when you aren’t in the room; and c) don’t stream movies through a game console as it uses at least ten times more energy than viewing through an app on your TV or through a low-power streaming device like Roku or Apple TV. Longer-term, always buy appliances, electronics, and equipment with the ENERGY STAR® label. That way you can be assured that you are buying one of the more efficient models on the market. That will help reduce your utility bill for many years to come and the amount of power the state needs to generate, especially during extended heat waves — the likes of which we are due to experience a lot more often due to climate change.

What Your Elected Officials can Do to Keep the Power On

Even as our local, state, and federal leaders look to tackle climate change, extreme heat — and the associated pressures on the electric grid — are going to be part of our future here in New Mexico. We’ve got to address this issue head-on to make sure we can keep the lights on and air conditioners running on the hottest summer days.

Our utilities and state leaders must take climate change and expected future weather into account when doing grid and electricity resource planning and should model how the power system can cope with different kinds of pressure on the grid. This planning and modeling will help buy enough power on those hot days. These leaders should also work toward a fully-integrated Western grid, which would allow us to more easily and inexpensively coordinate emergency power system reserves.

There’s also a big role for local and state governments and utilities to weather-proof our homes and buildings to help keep cool air indoors, which can reduce utility bills every month and also help New Mexicans stay safe during summer power outages. Weather-proofing includes supporting homeowners and businesses in improving insulation, replacing traditional air conditioners and furnaces with efficient air source heat pumps, and scaling up demand flexibility programs that automatically manage electricity demands.


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