DOE Releases Report on U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities

As the summer sets in around the country, many Americans are cranking up their fans and air conditioning units to escape the record-high heat. Especially in the West, rising temperatures are increasing electricity demand to the point where some experts argue that by 2050, 34 gigawatts of new generating capacity will be required — the equivalent of 100 power plants and a $40 billion bill for consumers. According to a new report from the Department of Energy (DOE) released yesterday, this is just one example of the many vulnerabilities facing the nation’s energy sector as a result of climate change.

The DOE report catalogs the various threats facing America’s energy infrastructure due to rising average annual temperatures, which have increased approximately 1.5°F (0.8°C) since the start of the 20th century. In particular, the energy sector will have to confront:

  • “Increasing air and water temperatures,
  • Decreasing water availability in some regions and seasons, and
  • Increasing intensity and frequency of storm events, flooding, and sea level rise.”

These climate trends have already had a devastating ripple effect throughout our country: the Southwest suffered through a record-setting drought, the West endured nearly unparalleled wildfires, and Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East coast, causing billions of dollars in damage and one of the worst blackouts in history. And that was just in 2012.

A snapshot of 10 years worth of vulnerabilities in the nation’s energy sector. To read more about these events, click on the picture and you should be directed to an interactive version of this map on DOEs website. (credit: Department of Energy)

These trends are expected to intensify in the years to come, which will adversely affect the stability of the U.S. energy sector. For instance, rising air and water temperatures will continue to increase power demand for air conditioning while simultaneously reducing the rainfall and mountain snowpack levels necessary to produce adequate hydropower in California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southeast. Drought-induced water scarcity will also limit opportunities for continued hydraulic fracturing natural gas development. Sea level rise and intensifying storms will put more energy assets and infrastructure at risk, especially along the coastlines. In addition, any disruptions in the electricity system — through flooding and wildfires, for example — could compound these problems further by making entire regions vulnerable to blackouts and brownouts.

Due to our hundred-year history of carbon emissions, most of these climate trends are inevitable, at least in the short-term. However, the DOE report points out some promising technology and policy opportunities to help the energy sector mitigate these harsh realities. For instance, commercially available condensing technology would allow steam-electric power generating stations (running on nuclear, natural gas, or concentrated solar power, etc.) to dramatically cut their fresh water usage by converting steam back into water for a closed-loop process. Structural improvements, especially for the energy assets along the East and Gulf Coasts, could make this infrastructure more storm-resilient. Governments at all levels could also institute more energy efficiency policies. New York City, for example, has cut energy consumption by 2-3% in some parts of the city by planting more trees and installing green roofs on many buildings. One study cited by the DOE report projected that retrofitting 80% of the country’s conditioned commercial buildings could realize savings of $735 million per year.

In a final call to action reminiscent of the adaptation measures outlined in President Obama’s recent Climate Action Plan, the DOE report calls for a “comprehensive and accelerated approach” to implementing adaptation and mitigation efforts. From instituting improved technologies, initiating prudent policymaking, and engaging with stakeholders, building greater climate resilience in our energy sector will ultimately require a host of solutions working in concert together. DOE officials hope that this report will be used as a starting point for such problem-solving.
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