Heat wave could bring record temps, but utilities ready for A/C demand

The heat wave in the eastern half of the US includes high humidity levels, which will make temperatures in the 90s feel like over 100. But power suppliers say they don’t anticipate problems.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
A boy plays at a fountain in New York, on June 20. With air conditioners cranking as a heat wave bears down on the US Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, demand for power should surge but not to record levels.

The eastern half of the United States is about ready to get baked.

The first major heat wave of the season is expected to push temperatures into the mid- to upper 90s in places like Newark, N.J.; Detroit; Philadelphia; and Washington. According to the weather forecasters, some communities will have record temperatures on Wednesday.

But it won’t just be the heat: Humidity levels will be high, making it feel like a sauna.

“With the humidity, a lot of places are going to feel an additional 5 degrees to 10 degrees warmer,” says Tom Kines, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com.

That means on Wednesday in New York City with an expected high of 96 degrees F., it will feel like 104 degrees. On Thursday, the air temperature in Washington, D.C., is expected to be 99 degrees, but it will feel like 108 degrees.

Heat waves have their own set of challenges. If they are prolonged, they can put stress on electric grids as consumers turn up their air conditioners to try to stay cool. Many homeowners can’t keep their lawns watered and instead watch them turn brown. And, for those without air conditioning, the additional heat makes sleeping difficult and may present health issues.

At least for this heat wave, the major power suppliers say they anticipate getting through without any serious problems. “We expect the capacity to meet the demand,” says Marcia Blomberg, a spokeswoman for ISO New England, the operator of the region’s bulk power system and wholesale electricity markets.

Nevertheless, some power suppliers are preparing for the possibility of larger-than-anticipated peak demand. “As a precautionary measure we have alerted some of our demand response providers that they might be needed in some areas of the state [Wednesday] afternoon,” writes Ken Klapp, a spokesman for the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), in an e-mail.

Last July, during a heat wave, the NYISO asked some large customers to cut down on their power consumption by doing such things as turning their air-conditioning thermostats higher, turning down their lights, or manufacturing products at a time when demand for electricity was not so high. This resulted in a savings of 1,400 megawatts.

Some groups are viewing the heat as an opportunity, not a detriment. In New York’s Times Square, the Times Square Alliance expected thousands of yoga enthusiasts to stretch and breathe together at an event that was part promotion for Athleta, a clothing company, and part celebration of the summer solstice.

“We have been as surprised as anyone by the growth of this event, from 3 people 10 years ago to 14,000 yogis preregistered this year,” said Tim Tompkins, president of the alliance, in a statement to the Monitor. “We think there is something about the core notion of the event – finding stillness and tranquility in the midst of our busy, urban lives that draws people here even on one of the hottest days of the summer.”

Indeed, in a car-free part of Times Square, scores of New Yorkers – many wearing just bathing suits – listened to the Beatles 1969 song “Here Comes the Sun.”

One of those was Darleen Jobson-Larkin, who works in marketing in the area. While she waited for other people to arrive, she said the heat was not really a problem since the type of yoga the mass would be doing is Bikram yoga, which is normally done in a hot studio.

“It’s actually about 7 degrees or 8 degrees cooler here than a studio,” she said, “so it’s just perfect.”

However, the heat was also a challenge for others.

In midtown Manhattan, cabdriver Shabbir Abed had the hood of his taxi opened to let the overheated engine cool down. He estimated it would take an hour for the engine to cool enough for him to get the radiator checked. In the meantime, he said, “No customers.”

The heat and humidity were even worse for Bahaa Abdelmaguid, who operates a food cart in midtown. “It’s at least 40 degrees hotter inside,” he said, giving a tour of his kitchen. He has steam tables, a grill, hot water, and a machine that heats and turns a leg of lamb. His solution: drink lots of water.

In the Midwest, temperatures started rising earlier in the week. Aurora, Ill., resident Jim Pedderson says the 90 degree temperatures, combined with a paucity of rain, have already turned his yard into a desert. “It was luscious and green in March, but now it just looks like straw,” he says.

With the heat and humidity, Mr. Pedderson says his family tends to go to the movies more than heading for outdoor activities. “Hopefully, it won’t last long,” he says.

That will be the case, says Mr. Kines of AccuWeather, who anticipates the heat wave will last only two or three days. “While Friday will be humid, it won’t be quite as warm, and there will be clouds and thunderstorms,” he predicts. “In the Northeast, it will cool down over the weekend as a cold front moves through, and next week in general will feature temperatures at or below normal.”

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