Scorching heat, rolling blackouts: The west is changing how it does summer

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This June, we received a letter from a reader asking why it seemed like there are fewer summer blackouts, especially in the western US, than there used to be.

This resonated with me. When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, summer always seemed to bring with it a couple of electrical blackouts. By 2001, the term “rolling blackouts” was a household phrase. The morning news would warn of a heatwave. My sister and I would head out to a friend’s house or some local summer camp, and when we returned home from pool-bleached adventures the power would go dead. Sometimes the blackouts lasted just a few minutes. But occasionally, hours passed and my parents would get cranky, sweating miserably with no way to know when we could get the air conditioner back on.

For me, it’s a trivial memory to think back on—my 20-years-younger parents wondering if they should wait for power to cook dinner or just have everyone fend for themselves in the slowly-warming fridge. We were lucky. We were a young family with bodies that were able to withstand a couple hours of heat. But blackouts aren’t just a minor inconvenience for some people. Surely, there were less fortunate people who suffered hyperthermia during these heatwaves. The very old and the very young are particularly susceptible, but blackouts are problems for businesses, too. Back then, the fledgling world of the dot-com boom was just figuring out how to deal with overheating servers and dropped conference calls.

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