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A Climate Emergency?

Capacity shortages from global warming should be the real cause for alarm.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2007

Suppose the experts are wrong about climate change. Suppose they’ve underestimated the impact of global warming. What would happen if temperatures were to rise much higher and much sooner than predicted? What if the worst-case scenario were to come true?

That is a question utilities must face today, even as the industry races to find solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

This predicament is not entirely fair. That’s because even a modest rise in temperatures, standing alone, would force utilities to build more capacity to meet the expected rise in cooling demand, which would only add more fuel to the fire, assuming that that the added capacity would include a fair share of fossil resources.

But the alternative could be worse. The heat wave in 2003 in Europe killed at least 35,000 people— 20,000 in Italy and 15,000 in France. Utilities—whether in Europe or America or even India or China—don’t want to be caught short of power when the mercury climbs. They’ll be held accountable if it happens.

Many of those who died in the European heat waves were seniors without air conditioning, as average temperatures during that period exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and settled around 86 degrees Fahrenheit at night. In Alsace, where at one point temperatures soared to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, the electric company had to train water cannons on the roof of the nuclear-power reactor to keep it cool. But that was not enough to stop the grid from failing—there were widespread blackouts throughout France and Italy from the extreme rises in electricity demand. Moreover, experts say 2003 was Europe’s hottest summer in at least half a millennium. Oxford University climate scientist and statistician Myles Allen has said that while the heat wave was caused by anticyclones over Europe, which always increases temperatures, “climate change made the background temperatures within which the anti-cyclones operated that much higher.”

Of course, to longtime readers of Public Utilities Fortnightly , the idea that a warming climate might force adjustments in utility resource plans is nothing new. Nearly 20 years ago, in this very column (then known then as “Pages With the Editor”), Editor Bruce W. Radford covered some of the first industry discussions on global warming.

His April 14, 1988, column was titled, “Are We Planning for the Greenhouse Effect?” And back then, the first focus of the industry seemingly was on steel in the ground. In his article, Radford reported on a draft study by ICF on the effects of global warming on electric utilities that was commissioned by the Electric Power Research Institute, the Edison Electric Institute, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That report had sought to predict the fate of the New York state utility system and a southeastern utility in a world of uncertain climate.

Focusing on the year 2015 (then 27 years in the future), the report had predicted an increase in generating requirements of between 10 percent and

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