Warming already taking toll on U.S. energy sector — DOE

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 15, 2013

Rising temperatures, decreasing water availability, more severe storms and rising seas stemming from climate change are already affecting every part of the country’s energy sector, and those threats will only grow more severe in years to come, the Energy Department said today.DOE in a new¬†report¬†outlines the effects a warming world with more chaotic and damaging storms, wildfires and other natural disasters is having on oil and gas exploration, power plants, and an aging electric grid.The outlook isn’t pretty.

The agency pointed to the unprecedented shutdown of a nuclear reactor because of rising seawater temperatures on the Connecticut coast last year, as well as the request by power plants to dump hotter-than-permitted water into nearby lakes and streams.

In another case, high temperatures and high demand last year caused a transformer and power line to trip in Arizona, triggering a cascading blackout that tripped the San Onofre nuclear plant offline, leaving millions of people without power.

Wildfires are threatening large swaths of the electric grid, and waning water resources are calling into question just how much hydropower the United States can generate.

What the report also makes clear is that storms like Superstorm Sandy are only a taste of things to come.

That storm caused a surge in New York Harbor that was about 9 feet above average, knocking out power for 8 million people in 21 states, damaging large swaths of the electric grid and fuel pumps at gas stations, and forcing the closure of a handful of nuclear power plants along the coast, DOE said.

The storm also highlighted the fact that energy infrastructure is interconnected, the agency said. A pipeline shipping products from the Gulf of Mexico was not fully operational after losing power, forcing the closure of refineries.

Coming years could bring more damage, DOE said, noting that last year was the warmest year since record keeping began in 1895 for the contiguous United States, and the hottest month for the nation was July 2012. Those higher temperature have ushered in heat waves, a longer wildfire season, decreased sea ice in the Alaskan Arctic sea and a longer growing season, DOE said.

In many cases, historic drought conditions are combining with high temperatures to parch power plants throughout the country that need water to cool reactors, generate steam or produce hydroelectricity.

Higher temperatures are also putting pressure on the system in the form of demand as an increasing number of air conditioners pull power from the grid, causing even more devastating consequences during rolling blackouts and brownouts.

The report calls for a host of new, innovative methods to protect the grid, power plants, and oil and gas producers from the effects of climate change but doesn’t make specific recommendations or provide cost estimates.

Namely, DOE urged private and public efforts on new technology that is climate-resilient and help with accelerating and scaling up adaption methods if these challenges are to be met.

The use of water is a key sector for improvement including new technologies to reduce consumption by fossil fuel production and generation, including through nontraditional water supplies and innovative cooling techniques. There should also be greater use of energy efficiency and management of energy demand in buildings, appliances and vehicles, the report said.

Keys to achieving these technology advances are better “enabling policies” that support and incentivize these improvements, improved data collection and risk and benefits analysis of vulnerabilities and climate risks, and better stakeholder engagement and communication, particularly between the federal, state and local governments and the financial community, the report said.

DOE’s report builds on President Obama’s call to action on climate change during a June 25 speech at Georgetown University, in which he announced a rule for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

Utilities and other stakeholders are now scrambling to craft a response to U.S. EPA’s new rule, expected to be complete by June 2014 and finalized by 2015 (Greenwire, July 9).

Storms like Superstorm Sandy are also triggering more regional responses, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to spend up to $20 billion to ensure New York City can survive extreme weather and climate change (Climatewire, June 12).