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Hybrid work adds strain to power grids during heat wave

Matt Levin Sep 6, 2022
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California's electric grid operator has asked residents to save power by shutting off their air conditioning in the late afternoon and evening during the ongoing heat wave. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Hybrid work adds strain to power grids during heat wave

Matt Levin Sep 6, 2022
Heard on:
California's electric grid operator has asked residents to save power by shutting off their air conditioning in the late afternoon and evening during the ongoing heat wave. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
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It’s been brutally, brutally hot here in California in the past few days. San Jose, up in the San Francisco Bay Area, hit 104 degrees Monday. A day after reaching 115 degrees, Sacramento got a reprieve — 114 on Tuesday. For the seventh straight day, California’s Independent System Operator — the agency in charge of most of the state’s electric grid — is asking residents to lay off the air conditioning in the afternoon and evening

California is again struggling to keep the lights on, and that may be partly due to the rise of hybrid work, which is keeping those lights on at the office and in the living room.

Steve Malsam works from home full time in Southern California. After his air conditioning broke, he thought about working in a coffee shop instead of sweating out this heat wave in his bedroom.

“But then I’d be one of those people talking out loud on speakerphone out in public,” he said. “And nobody wants to be that guy.”

The state of California might prefer that Malsam were that guy, once he gets his AC working again. 

“Remote work is probably making things worse right now,” said Severin Borenstein, who researches energy markets at the University of California, Berkeley. “They’re still cooling the offices, and yet people are staying home and also air conditioning on these very hot days.”

He said for the energy grid, hybrid work is the worst of both worlds, especially if employers don’t coordinate which days employees come in. 

And he worries about the energy impact of that pandemic home renovation craze.

“I suspect because people are working from home more, we are seeing more air conditioning being put in,” Borenstein said.

Remote workers may not be reckless with the AC because they directly pay the cost of running it. But Vijay Modi at Columbia University said how low you set the thermostat really depends on how well off you are.

“Those who are doing OK financially are thinking about comfort first,” he said.

One energy-saving tip from me, here in Sacramento: No need to use the oven for dinner. You can just fry an egg on the sidewalk. 

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