Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Climate change will force extensive changes to US power grid

Christine Hertzog in the Energy Collective: A recently released report from the US Department of Energy (DOE) details the impacts of climate change on our energy grid (electricity, oil/gas pipelines, etc.), and it is a sobering read.   Titled the “U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather,” the DOE report should be thought- and action-provoking for utilities executives, regulators, and us ratepayers.   If you considered Smart Grid policies and renewable energy technologies are disruptive to utility business models and bottom lines, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners convened a couple of sessions during their recent summer conference that focused on climate change adaptation planning and critical infrastructure protection – mostly focused on electricity, but vulnerabilities plague natural gas and transport fuel systems too.  Ratepayers will see these terms pop up more often in the agendas of public utility commissions and city/state/regional planning groups as policy makers and utilities identify all grid infrastructure that is at risk from more extreme weather occurring more often – one of the primary fallouts of climate change.  Each state will have unique and unavoidable impacts.  Once grid vulnerabilities are identified, these weak points will need to be prioritized for upgrading, replacement, relocation, or other “hardening” projects.  (Hardening means strengthening against specific threats – usually cyber or physical in nature.)

Superstorm Sandy offers an eloquent illustration of the magnitude of the problem.  The storm inflicted severe infrastructure damage to a significant portion of the Northeast.  It produced a 9 foot storm surge that overwhelmed parts of New York City – and climate change will continue to produce more precipitation in this region in the future, increasing the likelihood of similar impact devastation potentials.  Grid infrastructure was crippled throughout the region, and it took weeks to restore power to all affected businesses and households.... 

...Just in case Midwesterners were thinking that climate change has no impact on their electrical grids, consider the case of the springtime flooding of the Missouri River in 2011 that inundated the Ft. Calhoun nuclear power plant. This historic flood won’t be historic in the future.  It will be routine as climate change increases winter/spring precipitation.  The local utility already passed a 6.9% electricity rate increase to pay for plant repairs estimated to run $200 million.  It’s likely that these repairs aren’t covering future projects to reduce the facility’s vulnerability to more floods occurring with greater intensity and regularity...

Three pylons (in Canada, as it happens), shot by Immanuel Huybrechts, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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