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Three City Heat and Electrical Failure Adaptation (3HEAT) Study

Sponsor: National Science Foundation

Study period: January 2016 – December 2020

Figure 1. Annual frequency of regional electrical system disruptions: 1992-2009. Source: NERC

Extreme temperature is the leading cause of weather-related mortality in the US, and the environmental hazard most confidently projected to worsen with climate change. Heat wave activity is increasing rapidly in the US: average incidence in cities has increased 20% per decade since 1960, and duration and intensity have increased in tandem. Despite this, heat-associated mortality in the US has declined, partly due to the increasing prevalence of mechanical air conditioning (AC), arguably the most effective measure for preventing heat exposure.

With an increasing reliance on mechanical cooling for heat management comes a growing potential for significant adverse impacts if electrical power is not available, particularly in cities where urban heat islands and other factors heighten climate change vulnerability. As a result of both extreme weather and increased demand, the number of US regional grid failures has risen steadily (Figure 1). This is increasing the potential for critical infrastructure disruptions in concert with extreme weather events. Climate change, by increasing summertime demand and decreasing generation capacity, may lead to even more frequent failures.

The intent of this research is to quantify the human health risk of concurrent heat wave and grid failure events in three large US cities and to test the efficacy of specific environmental, technological, and behavioral adaptations designed to mitigate the impacts of rising heat hazards. Through the integration of building energy performance, regional climate, and human health effects models, the proposed study will simulate human heat exposure under variable meteorological and electrical grid performance scenarios, quantify heat-related mortality and morbidity, and evaluate the potential for individual and institutional adaptive strategies to lessen population exposure to extreme heat (Figure 2). Climate and health impact modeling is focused on the cities of Atlanta, Detroit, and Phoenix and is being carried out at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Arizona State University, and the University of Michigan.

Figure 2. Integration of study modeling tools.