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The Growing Footprint of Climate Change

Can systems built today cope with tomorrow’s weather extremes?

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2013
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under development in the science community, it will take many years to validate them for use in the electricity industry. They also will require considerable investments in science and data collection to better understand the various processes and interactions involved and develop robust, validated tools that provide timely and relevant information for decision makers. 

Facing Consequences

Every day, we’re designing and building billions of dollars in electricity infrastructure, but often without a full appreciation of the risks that climate change poses to those investments, or of possible steps that could be taken to mitigate those risks. Decision makers in New York State, for example, are evaluating the resilience of their electricity infrastructure as they rebuild and restore the grid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. However, the new design criteria are unclear regarding how to define sufficient protection against climate-related threats. This lack of clarity stems, in no small part, from the dearth of tools available to project future risks and evaluate different response options in a robust and integrated way that accounts for the multiple, interacting changes taking place. 

One advantage the electricity industry might have over other sectors affected by climate change is that it’s learned to work with a statistical representation of capacity availability. Contingency analyses already are performed for stochastic processes, such as disruption of natural gas supply to power plants, or to account for the variable contribution of renewable sources, such as wind and solar, to the system. The same sort of approaches potentially could be applied to account for the effect of climate-driven changes in extreme events on existing infrastructure. An even more valuable development for improving overall grid resilience would be applying these tools to capacity expansion planning in a manner that accounts for demand growth, supply changes, and other trends. 

Conversely, there are many challenges and uncertainties that must be accounted for when trying to reduce energy system vulnerability or enhance its resilience. Perhaps the most difficult challenge for the planning process is to comply with the intertwined web of rules and regulations across multiple sectors having authority over water, plant siting, land use, and emissions. The planning process and necessary support tools will need to account for disparate compliance issues and to facilitate a comprehensive tradeoff analysis where many scenarios can be explored to gain insights into the sensitivity of certain key assumptions toward the overall planning outcome.

Robust, integrated electricity planning tools that account for all of these factors will take time to be developed, tested across a wide range of possible future conditions, and deployed in different regions. In the meantime, it appears our efforts should focus on enhancing resilience of the electricity infrastructure as the best way of dealing with a future that will be unlike the past. The year 2012 marked our wake-up call. We can take steps to anticipate future stresses and enhance our resilience, or be surprised and deal with the consequences. The choice is ours.

Endnotes:

1. “ Record Heat, Drought Pose Problems for U.S. Electric Power ,” by Eaton J., National Geographic News , Aug.

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