Can America’s energy infrastructure survive severe weather?

Photo: Stefan Leijon

America’s energy system is struggling in the face of severe and costly weather events and disasters caused by climate change, a report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) revealed on July 11. “As President Obama said in his speech last month, climate change is happening – and the effects are already being felt across the country,” spokeswoman April Saylor said in a statement.

Saylor’s statement was echoed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for climate change and technology at the DOE, Jonathan Pershing, “All of our science goes in one direction: The damages are going to get worse…It will take dozens of actors from government and private sectors planning what to do and how to make it cost-effective.”

The damage wrought by severe weather is mostly being felt in the energy sector. “Increasing temperatures, decreasing water availability, more intense storm events, and sea level rise will each independently, and in some cases in combination, affect the ability of the United States to produce and transmit electricity from fossil, nuclear, and existing and emerging renewable energy sources,” the DOE report said. The report has brought to focus the energy infrastructure’s vulnerability to severe weather events caused by global warming.

The science


Pershing, who joined the DOE in 2013, said that much of the climate disruption is a result of 150 years of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The greenhouse gas effect occurs when certain gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, trap the sun’s heat. The burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions are enhancing the greenhouse gas effect and therefore increasing the Earth’s temperature. According to the National Geographic, scientists often use the term climate change instead of global warming because “as the Earth’s average temperature climbs, winds and ocean currents move heat around the globe in ways that can cool some areas, warm others, and change the amount of rain and snow falling.”

A new study by Kerry Emanuel, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that greenhouse gas emissions may contribute to a 10 to 40 percent increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones by the year 2100. Emanuel’s study predicts that these storms will generate stronger winds, rain and storm surges around the world. This extreme storm activity will likely be felt most acutely in the North Pacific, the North Atlantic and the southern Indian Ocean.

Vulnerable energy infrastructure

According to the 2011 report by the World Economic Forum, the U.S. infrastructure ranked below 30th for quality of electric power sector. This is supported by the DOE report.


The report catalogues a list of weather events that have affected energy systems across the U.S., including fuel shortages in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, the shutdown of power plants in New England and Illinois last summer due to hot weather and drought, and the restrictions placed on fracking companies’ access to water in North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania as result of drought. Fracking involves high-pressure injection of large volumes of underground water to release gas inside rocks for energy.

The report notes that these events “may become more frequent and intense in the future decades.” The DOE report goes onto say that 2012 was the hottest year on the record in the U.S. and last July was the hottest month since the U.S. began recording temperatures in 1895. High temperatures were accompanied by record-setting drought, which reduced water available for cooling fossil fuel plants and producing hydroelectric power.

Severe weather has also been costly for the energy sector. The report warns that by 2030 nearly $1 trillion in energy assets in the Gulf Coast region will be at risk of costly and extreme hurricanes and sea level rises. 2012 was the second most expensive year for weather disasters, with $115 billion in damages from Hurricane Sandy and the extended drought. Only Hurricane Katrina was more costly. As infrastructure ages, storm-related power outages might become a frequent phenomenon, with an annual cost of $20 to $50 billion.

“We don’t have a robust energy system, and the costs [of dealing with adverse environmental conditions] are significant,” Jonathan Pershing told the New York Times. “The cost today is measured in the billions. Over the coming decades, it will be in the trillions. You can’t just put your head in the sand anymore.”

The DOE report maintains that addressing the vulnerabilities of the energy sector will “ensure access to reliable electricity and fuels, a cornerstone of economic growth and energy security.”

Building resilient energy infrastructure

President Barack Obama referred to these vulnerabilities in his speech on climate change at Georgetown University on June 25. He said Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Northeast U.S. in October 2012, provided a wake-up call.

Obama acknowledged the efforts undertaken by New York City to build a resilient energy infrastructure. “New York City is fortifying its 520 miles of coastline as an insurance policy against more frequent and costly storms,” Obama said. “And what we’ve learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we’ve got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and businesses, and withstand more powerful storms. That means stronger sea walls, natural barriers, hardened power grids, hardened water systems, [and] hardened fuel supplies.”

The DOE report also emphasizes that climate-resilient energy systems are the key to addressing the system’s vulnerabilities. The five key technologies that the DOE report identified for a resilient energy infrastructure include an upgraded power grid, crisis hardened facilities, less-water intensive fracking, drought tolerant biofuel crops, and less water-dependent power plants.

Regarding upgrading power grids, the report suggests that the development of microgrids and distributed generation—such as rooftop solar and small wind power instalments—would make the grid less vulnerable to climate disruption. A microgrid is an electrical grid than can operate from its own power, without a long-distance transmission system. The electricity grid is also wrought with other inefficiencies. According to an op-ed in the Washington Post, the U.S. lacks a nationwide and networked transmission grid. Electricity is local; it is transmitted on regional grids where different energy sources bid to get “on the grid.” The wholesale cost of electricity is the price from the lowest bidder, whether it is nuclear, natural gas, or wind.

The DOE report also urges for “placement of substations and other critical local electricity infrastructure in locations that are not anticipated to be affected by storm surges.” Hurricane Sandy’s effect in New York City was exacerbated because much of the underground electric infrastructure was flooded with salt water.

The report also encourages less reliance on water for biofuel production and fracking. As noted before, fracking involves high-pressure injection of large volumes of underground water to release the gas inside rocks for energy. The DOE points out that some energy companies are beginning to reuse and recycle fracking wastewater.

In response to the report, Greenpeace U.S. spokesman, Robert Gardner told the LA Times that the Obama administration’s primary focus should be the transition from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to wind and solar technology. “The question is why the Department of Energy is really focusing on continuing the problem which has caused this tidal wave of global warming,” Gardner said.

Benjamin Cole, the Director of Communications at the American Energy Alliance, told the LA Times that climate predictions should not be used to justify “sweeping changes” brought by Obama’s energy proposals. “We can’t continue to dole out money we don’t have [for alternative energy],” Cole said. American Energy Alliance lobbies for oil and natural gas. The Washington Post op-ed supports this view. According to the op-ed, since the wind blows at night when electricity demand is at its lowest, it cannot serve as a dependable part of electricity supply. To illustrate this, the op-ed notes that on July 6, 2012, electricity demand in the Chicago area peaked at 22,000 megawatts and yet, four of the 2,700 megawatts produced by wind generation contributed to the energy load.

If the grid is to survive future severe weather caused by climate change, a change in the way the US manages the electricity grid is necessary. Whatever path the Obama administration chooses to address vulnerabilities to the energy infrastructure, as the DOE report notes, the country’s energy system is heading for crisis. Now is the time to act.

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