Climate Change Jeopardizes Our Energy Systems

Photo credit: Flickr (koocbor)
The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is holding two interesting hearings related to climate change and energy infrastructure. First, on Thursday April 19, the committee will hear from several experts about the impacts of rising sea level on domestic energy and water infrastructure. Then, the following Thursday April 26, they will hear about weather related electricity outages.

I’m pleased that the ENR committee is highlighting these important issues. All policymakers need to understand that climate impacts – such as sea level rise and extreme weather – are harming us in ways that may not appear readily connected. In fact, a 2011 NWF report More Extreme Weather and the US Energy Infrastructure focused on exactly these sorts of connections between climate change and the vulnerability of our energy systems.

Coastal Energy Infrastructure at Risk

Rising sea level certainly does threaten our near-shore oil and gas pipelines and refineries, as well as power plants, which are often located near the coast to make use of the ample water available needed for standard electricity generation. And, climate change is the main driver for sea level rise, especially for the 21st century.

Over the last century, climate change has contributed to about 8 inches of sea level rise globally. Some areas, like the Gulf Coast, have experienced even more sea level rise due to local land subsidence.  The best scientific projections for the coming century: 1-2 feet of global mean sea level rise by 2050, and 2-6 feet by 2100.  About 3 feet of sea level rise would inundate more than 9000 km2 of coastal areas in the lower 48 states, according to a new study lead by Climate Central.

And, it’s not just sea level rise. Coastal energy infrastructure is also vulnerable to hurricanes. NWF’s 2011 report highlights how vulnerable oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf region is to hurricanes:

About 30 percent of the U.S. oil supply and 20 percent of the natural gas supply is produced in the Gulf of Mexico region, an area highly vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes. As climate change makes it likely that these storms will become more intense and bring more severe flooding, the billions of dollars worth of infrastructure invested in this region are at risk. This includes some 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms, 31,000 miles of pipeline, and more than 25 onshore refineries. To make matters worse, much of this infrastructure is aging, making it even more susceptible to failures.

Weather-Related Power Outages

Power outages are becoming a more frequent nuisance for many of us, and an increasing number are due to weather. Just check out this chart that NWF created based on the reports submitted by electricity companies for major outages. Changes in extreme weather, power transmission infrastructure and maintenance practices, and demographic trends may all be contributing to more frequent power outages.

Furthermore, electricity generation is likely to be affected by water shortages, especially as climate change brings more extreme heat and drought. About 89 percent of electricity in the United States is generated in thermoelectric power plants that require water for cooling. Water demand from the energy sector is projected to increase by 32 percent by 2030, while droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe. This impending crisis is not widely recognized as a future cause of electricity outages.

Building a Better Energy System

The climate-related threats to our nation’s energy systems compound the vulnerability associated with the aging and crumbling energy infrastructure, which is already causing environmental damage. It is high time that we make investments in a new energy infrastructure that is more resilient in the face of more extreme weather and climate. We recommend that the nation undertake a detailed national climate vulnerability assessment for the energy industry and develop climate adaptation plans to address vulnerabilities.

Furthermore, we must begin designing, strategically locating, and making investments in energy systems—such as appropriately sited offshore wind and distributed photovoltaic solar—that are more resilient to severe weather and climate disruptions, while at the same time help us take meaningful steps away from our dependence on coal, oil, and gas. EPA’s carbon standards for new power plants are an important step toward helping us build a more resilient power infrastructure and one that is not adding to the problem is critical.