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Cities fight to keep the lights on in extreme weather events

Cities fight to keep the lights on in extreme weather events

by host

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Sign up here.

A city, a heat wave, a catastrophic blackout that leaves millions without power, unable to find relief from stifling temperatures.

That nightmarish scenario may seem far-fetched. But it’s a growing possibility in Europe’s major cities in the age of climate change.

When temperatures climb, city residents — who are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat compared with those living in rural areas — tend to seek refuge in air-conditioned, indoor spaces. That puts a major strain on electricity grids, which struggle to keep up with demand.

As these extreme events become more common, experts warn that there’s an increased potential for shortages.

“Grid congestion, the failure of the electricity network to cope with increased demand, already affects all regions in one way or another,” said Roel Massink, senior adviser for innovation and European cooperation in the city of Utrecht’s urban development department.

There’s already huge pressure on the grid as a result of Europe’s green policies, he pointed out: “The electrification of transport, heating and industry, has coincided with more irregular supply from renewable sources like wind turbines and solar fields.”

Adding scorching heat to the mix “definitely” poses a challenge for the bloc’s grids, said Kristian Ruby, secretary-general of electricity industry association Eurelectric. Heat waves — among other extreme weather events like wildfires and floods — “have a particularly high impact on the electricity value chain,” he said.

Not only do they cause demand spikes that make it hard to balance networks, but they also put physical pressure on infrastructure: Scorching weather can make transformers overheat and overwhelm electrical cable insulation; it also makes repairs and routine maintenance more complex.

London came dangerously close to experiencing a massive blackout last July as demand for electricity spiked at the same time that the U.K. experienced its hottest day on record. Disaster was avoided only because the country’s National Grid’s Electricity System Operator (ESO) imported power from Belgium at the highest price Britain has ever paid to keep the lights — and air conditioning systems — on in the capital.

The dilemma London faced isn’t unthinkable in the EU, which last month experienced its hottest June on record.

Scrambling for fixes

EU and national authorities are working to better adapt power grids to a present and future shaped by climate-change.

ENTSO-E, which represents the bloc’s electricity network operators, has worked to shore up power grid capacity and come up with emergency plans, all of which were revamped in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All EU countries have protocols in place to manage system stress, and this past spring the European Commission unveiled a number of measures aimed at making networks more resilient as part of its proposed revision of the EU’s electricity market.

Authorities are working to better adapt power grids to climate change | Ronald Wittek/EFE via EPA

But those changes will take time and money: Eurelectric estimates the EU would need to make grid investments amounting to some €400 billion by 2030, out of which at least €32 billion would have to be allocated for resilience measures to protect the network from extreme weather events.

That’s leading some cities to take action to bring greater flexibility to their grids now.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is experimenting with using electric cars and their charging stations to help keep the local power grid balanced.

“During sunny days the electric cars can store the locally generated electricity in the car batteries and feed it back into the grid during peak demand hours in the evening,” said city adviser Massink.

National and EU-funded projects have been useful in postponing and reducing the need for grid reinforcements and helping to maintain network stability, he said.

The scheme is currently small-scale — there are about 700 bidirectional-charging points and only 25 bidirectional-charging cars — but Utrecht is adding more vehicle-to-grid (V2G) infrastructure every month.

“In the longer term, the goal is to have around 10,000 bidirectional-charging e-vehicles connected to the grid to ensure balance,” said Matthijs Kok, the city’s project manager for charging infrastructure. “There are currently 140,000 cars in Utrecht so this is doable because over time we can expect many of them to be replaced with newer models with V2G technology.”

Kok said that one challenge for expanding the scheme is that e-vehicles aren’t currently specifically designed to operate as reinforcements for power grids, but he said that as part of the scheme car manufacturers like Hyundai and Renault were working with the city to introduce the technology in specific models and car-share programs.

Utrecht isn’t alone in experimenting with the use of e-vehicles and charging infrastructure to balance its power grid. Switzerland has an ongoing program that aims to have some 3,000 bi-directional e-vehicles that can share power with homes and businesses on the road by 2030. Amsterdam has also experimented with somewhat more complex direct current bidirectional charging stations.

Given Utrecht is the Netherlands’ fastest-growing metropolitan area, the regional network operator — a public entity owned by local municipalities — is already working on extending and reinforcing grids, a process that Massink stressed “takes years.”

“Our challenge is to build the electricity system of the future in sync with the development of the city,” he said. “In the meantime, we need to use existing network capacity as efficiently as possible.”

Ensuring residents aren’t exposed to blackouts is essential if Utrecht wants to remain one of the bloc’s most competitive cities, he added.

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