How can the energy sector prepare for the impacts of climate change?

To achieve climate-resilient energy assets, you must balance risk and cost

By Shelley Hazen

Climate change and extreme weather events pose many threats to power generation and can impact how much energy we produce, deliver, and consume. In the coming decades, the energy sector faces a double challenge. First, it must transform into a low carbon supply system in response to climate change mitigation policies and targets. Second, the energy sector must adapt to the current and future effects of climate change to ensure energy supply remains secure, reliable, and resilient.

How can you prepare? First, you must understand the risks that climate change poses on the energy sector. By identifying the potential opportunities, and planning for plausible futures, we can bolster resiliency in the energy sector and create robust systems that are better able to withstand and bounce back from extreme weather and climate events.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the electricity sector is most at risk for disruption. Most of the electricity sector’s infrastructure was engineered and built for our past or current climate, which means it’s not resilient to the continued and expected increases – in magnitude, and in frequency – of extreme weather events.

We can group the impacts of climate change and extreme weather on the electricity sector into three broad categories:

  • Electricity demand;
  • Electricity generation; and
  • Electricity transmission, distribution, and infrastructure.

But what do these impacts look like in a real-world scenario?

Rising and Extreme Temperatures

Rising and extreme temperatures will lead to increased energy demand and supply needs as warmer temperatures often increase the demand for cooling, especially in the summer months.

Water Availability

Projected changes in how and when precipitation will fall can lead flooding events and drought conditions. Hydroelectric power plants are sensitive to the volume and timing of precipitation and stream flows.

Precipitation in catchment regions of hydropower plants is the main factor determining the amount of water resources available for power generation.  So increased water availability in some regions may increase hydroelectric capacity.  However, when combined with higher average temperatures, an increase in evaporation rates in hydropower reservoirs is possible, which may reduce the resource base for power generation.

Extreme Weather Events

Flooding and intense storms can damage energy infrastructure, including power lines and electrical distribution equipment. These events may also delay repair and maintenance work. Snow and ice storms can also cause major disruptions to transmission and delivery infrastructure, including power outages and grid failures. The resulting electricity outages can have serious consequences for the systems, sectors, and people who rely on it.

Cumulative Impacts

The cumulative impacts of climate change are also challenging. For example, consider the risks of drought, extreme heat, and wildfire. While any one of these present a challenge on their own, the system impacts may expand exponentially when taken together.

What’s Next for the Electricity Sector?

Climate change and extreme weather events have the potential to do costly damage to electrical generation and transmission infrastructure, as well as to the Canadian economy that depends on these assets.

As the world’s climate becomes less predictable, electricity stakeholders must prepare for a more dynamic and uncertain environment. Electrical companies will need to integrate climate change considerations into design standards, asset management practices and emergency response and recovery procedures.

Ensuring that new energy infrastructure is designed to better withstand climate change and variability by taking into consideration projected future climate and weather characteristics is critical. But it would be economically unaffordable to make each single element of an energy system 100% climate and weather-proof, so it’s essential to find the balance between the costs and security of energy supply. A climate-resilient energy system will not be one that performs optimally under one climate change scenario, rather, it will perform reliably across a plausible range of climate futures.

To learn more about how to find balance when climate-proofing your energy asset, contact me.

 About Shelley Hazen:

 As a Climate Change Specialist with GEI, Shelley helps her clients understand current and future climate and extreme weather impacts, risks, vulnerabilities and opportunities. Her expertise spans all stages of adaptation, from foundational data analysis to implementing resilience on the ground across varying scales and sectors.

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