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More than 30 states are under heat advisories and warnings this week as triple-digit temperatures stretch across the Midwest, East Coast and parts of the South. Some states reported deaths potentially linked to the heat, while others reported widespread power outages.

Parts of Detroit lost electricity, leaving thousands of residents with no air conditioning in the blistering heat. Some power companies, including those in Maryland, and Indiana, are urging residents and businesses to conserve energy to help prevent outages.

PJM, which coordinates the movement of electricity through 13 states in the East and the District of Columbia, says that heat takes a toll on utility equipment.

“During above-average temperatures, utility equipment can get very hot during the day and doesn’t get a chance to cool off at night, thus leading it to overheat and cause power outages in certain areas,” said Paula DuPont-Kidd, a spokesperson for PJM.

And though the withering heat this week may end up breaking many temperature records, the trend of power demand and the potential for blackouts is “not out of the ordinary,” said DuPont-Kidd. Still, peak demand for the mid-Atlantic area has already exceeded PJM’s estimates.

Along with PJM, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) encourages large electricity customers, such as supermarkets and universities, to reduce their energy usage on short notice when demand threatens to exceed peak levels. These “demand response programs” are mostly implemented during the summer months.
One megawatt can power 1,000 homes, and NERC estimates the demand response system can save as much as 30,000 megawatts nationwide. A supermarket that temporarily reduces its lighting during peak usage levels is an example of demand response.

“The program is beneficial and will continue to grow,” said Kevin Berent, manager of reliability assessment for SERC, NERC’s branch in the southeast region. “If a large number of businesses turn off their air conditioning for just 15 minutes every so often, that could prevent power outages in nearby residential areas.”

But NERC’s Summer Reliability Assessment says that most areas have enough spare generating capacity to prevent a large-scale need for demand response initiatives this summer. Also, the state of the economy has kept power demands low.

“Most of the demand reductions we’ve seen in previous years is because of the recession, and that enabled a higher reserve margin than usual,” said Mark Lauby, NERC’s vice president and director of reliability assessment and performance analysis.

As a result, major grid operators such as PJM are confident of their ability to handle power requirements from this week’s heat.