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Climate Change Poses Risks To Energy Systems

Wildfire in California
An increasing number and intensity of wildfires, as well as drought conditions, floods, and storm surges—all due to climate change—have the ability to threaten the nation’s energy and electricity infrastructure, according to a new report from the Department of Energy. Wikimedia Commons/Bureau of Land Management, California

A recent U.S. Department of Energy report warns that rising temperatures resulting from global climate changes could damage the nation’s energy infrastructure—and calls on the public and private sectors to address the issue.

September 3, 2013—According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), annual temperatures across the nation have increased by approximately 1.5°F over the past century and are expected to continue to rise. Climbing temperatures produce an increased number of droughts, extreme heat waves, wildfires, and intense storms—conditions, the report says, that threaten the nation’s energy and electricity infrastructure. The DOE says protecting the country’s energy resources as the mercury soars will require a concerted effort by the public and private sectors, including the engineering and construction industry.

Entitled U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather, the report is designed to build upon President Obama’s new Climate Action Plan. It outlines the possible effects of rising temperatures on the nation’s energy infrastructure and suggests palliative measures. “The report was developed in response to a broader presidential initiative on climate change adaptation planning to help prepare our nation for the current and future impacts of climate change and extreme weather,” said Keri Fulton, the deputy press secretary for the DOE, in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online. “Focusing on the U.S. energy sector allowed for better characterization of the nature and extent of risks from climate change.”

The report notes that July 2012 was the hottest month on record in the United States since record keeping began, in 1895, and that 2012 was the warmest year overall. Last year saw record high temperatures and droughts, an increased number of wildfires, and multiple intense storms and heat waves. Last summer more than 60 percent of the country experienced drought, and some areas endured “exceptional” drought, the report says. The DOE cautions that as these trends continue, the energy sector faces three primary challenges: increasing air and water temperatures; decreasing water availability in some regions and seasons; and increasing intensity and frequency of storm events, flooding, and rises in sea level. “Climate change and extreme weather represent an immediate and growing threat to the energy sector,” Fulton said. “The risks to the energy sector will vary with time across the nation and across different energy sector components, [that is,] electricity generation and distribution; oil and gas production, refining, and distribution; and energy demand.”

Without swift action by policy makers, industry leaders, and others in the public and private sectors, the nation’s energy infrastructure faces many risks, the report says. These include more frequent partial or complete shutdowns of thermoelectric (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) power plants as a result of decreased water availability; reduced power generation from hydroelectric power plants in some areas and seasons because of drought and declining snowpack; disruptions to energy production along the coasts as a result of rising sea levels and increasing storm intensity, storm surges, and flooding; and physical damage to power lines, transformers, and other facets of electricity infrastructure as a result of increasingly intense hurricanes, storms, and wildfires. “As noted in the report, we are already experiencing these impacts, and projections suggest that they will grow worse during this century even with increased climate change mitigation efforts,” Fulton said. “Expanding climate change preparedness and resilience efforts now is critical since further delay will only increase the risks and [raise] costs.”

The report outlines several steps that governmental bodies and the private sector could take to reduce adverse effects on the nation’s energy infrastructure and safeguard energy supplies, among them the creation and implementation of more efficient energy generation technologies. The DOE looks to advances in, for example, water-efficient technologies for fuel production, energy-efficient and water-conserving technologies for thermoelectric power generation, and water-efficient technologies for bioenergy production. “There is a role for everyone in developing more climate-resilient energy systems—including the engineering and construction industries—[which] can play a lead role in the development and deployment of more climate-resilient energy technologies and in hardening the existing energy infrastructure,” Fulton said.

The DOE also calls for new policies to support advanced technologies and accelerate their deployment. It stresses that more data are needed to help decision makers better understand climate change and safeguard the country’s energy infrastructure, and it wants all levels of government to work together and with stakeholder groups to facilitate the transition to an energy infrastructure that is better able to withstand climate change. “The report is meant to help inform decision makers about the risks associated with climate change and extreme weather to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy supplies, while also identifying actions that can be taken to increase climate preparedness and resilience,” Fulton said. “The federal government, including the Department of Energy, will partner with the private sector and state and local governments to assist in the development and deployment of climate-resilient technologies and policies to accelerate climate preparedness.”



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