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Climate Risk: Yet Another Reason to Choose Renewable Energy

Recent events in Japan have brought new attention to how national energy systems are vulnerable to natural disasters. But, one risk has largely flown under the radar: climate change. Considerable scientific research has looked at how our energy choices are threatening the climate, but much less attention has been paid to the other side of the equation.

A new report from National Wildlife Federation does just that by looking at how our energy infrastructure is threatened by changing climate.  The serious impacts are yet another reason why renewable energy is in our national interest.

The scientific data show that climate change is already bringing more weather and climate extremes. For example:

  • For the continental United States, the most intense precipitation events have seen an increase in total rainfall of about 20 percent over the last 100 years.
  • The fraction of land area considered dry has increased from 15 percent to 25 percent of the globe over the last few decades.
  • The destructive potential of tropical storms in the North Atlantic has increased by about 50 percent since the 1970s.

These and other climate trends are projected to continue over the next century, especially if we continue the business-as-usual approach of relying heavily on fossil fuels to produce energy. Extreme weather events already cost the country $17 billion a year on average.

The problem is that most of the energy infrastructure in the United States was built to withstand the climate and weather extremes of the past, not the future. To date, there have been no comprehensive efforts to carefully assess the vulnerability of our energy systems to these threats. The National Wildlife Federation analysis highlights just four of the potential threats (charts that highlight these points can be accessed through the image gallery, right and also through the report, which is linked at the beginning of this article)

  • Power outages are becoming more common. Major weather-related power outages have increased from 5 to 20 each year in the mid 1990s to 50 to 100 each year during the last five years.  While changes in the electric transmission grid and maintenance practices might explain some of this increase, more frequent weather and climate extremes are also likely contributing. Power outages and disturbances are estimated to cost the U.S. economy between $25 and $180 billion annually.
  • Oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf region is at risk as hurricanes intensify. Approximately 4000 off-shore oil and natural gas rigs, 31,000 miles of pipeline, and more than 25 on-shore oil refineries are located in the Gulf of Mexico region frequented by hurricanes and tropical storms.  Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are a prime example of the vulnerabilities: 6 months after the storms, 46 percent of affected facilities were still shut down. The energy industry is estimated to have lost $15 billion that year. 
  • Coal transport across the Midwest and Northeast will face more flooding disruptions. Heavy rainfall events in these regions have increased by 31 to 67 percent since the 1950s, a trend that will continue this century. About 70 percent of coal is transported by rail lines that must navigate across or along rivers. A transition from coal to renewable energy sources could reduce the reliance on and deterioration of rail, barge, and road infrastructure
  • Electricity generation in the Southwest will be limited by water shortages and extreme heat. 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. In addition, many thermoelectric plants become less efficient on extremely hot days, when more energy needs to be expended on cooling the boiler water.

The threats to our old energy systems bolsters the rationale for investing in renewable energy. Shifting to renewable energy can help us to meet the dual goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby limiting future extreme weather and climate impacts, and ensuring reliable, timely, and cost-efficient delivery of energy. It’s just a no-brainer that investing in renewable energy can have huge dividends for our energy security.

Off-shore wind and distributed solar photovoltaic are particularly attractive in that (1) they require negligible water to operate, a factor that promises to become more critical as water shortages become more common; (2) they do not require transporting fuel long distances across the country, thereby avoiding disruptions from flooding or storms; and (3) they do not rely as heavily on an extensive power grid subject to weather-related outages.

As the nation installs this new technology, it should be designed and strategically located to be more resistant to weather and climate impacts. For example, windmills could be designed to withstand higher wind speeds, off-shore wind farms could be sited in areas where hurricanes are infrequent, or new electricity distribution networks could be buried to minimize wind and heat disruptions.

While there is no way to prevent earthquakes and tsunamis, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change by reducing carbon pollution and taking steps to prepare for anticipated impacts. Addressing these vulnerabilities to the energy system requires more than a Band-Aid.  This is the time to be innovative and avoid the trap of building more of the same infrastructure with incremental improvements. Indeed, future investments must transform the U.S. energy infrastructure to be resilient in the face of more extreme weather and climate.

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