Climate Change Adaptations Will Force Extensive Changes to the US Power Grid

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.  The economic losses in NYC alone were estimated at $19 billion.  Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s mayor, announced a Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency that is charged with producing a plan for creating hardened infrastructure that can withstand disastrous weather events in the future.  The price tag is an estimated $19.5 billion.  Much of that money would be spent on strengthening or hardening transmission and distribution lines, relocating vulnerable substations and generation plants, and investing in more highly distributed generation and energy storage assets to “ride out” any service disruptions.

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.  Ironically, the Midwest will also suffer more frequent and severe droughts due to climate change.  U.S. power generation plants use enormous amounts of water – estimated to be up to 40% of all freshwater withdrawals or 200 billion gallons per day.  Climate change threatens existing generation facilities that may not have sufficient water in the future for their operations.  The money to upgrade, harden, replace, or relocate power generation, transmission, and distribution assets will come from somewhere – and right now that is most likely ratepayer pockets.

This is part one of a three part series.  Next week’s article will discuss a recent report from American Society of Civil Engineers with a focus on the US power grid.  You’ll learn more about the many threats facing the lifeblood of our economy – electricity.  But being the optimist that I am, there are opportunities to resolve these threats, and the last article in the series will discuss programs to pay for the massive infrastructure investments that must be made.