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article imageReport: Climate change, extreme weather set to disrupt power grid

By Lynn Herrmann     Apr 20, 2011 in Environment
Washington - A new report on climate change shows more extreme weather is on the way, and the current US energy infrastructure is poised to fail unless it goes through a detailed transformation, including appropriate wind and solar sites.
The report, More Extreme Weather and the U.S. Energy Infrastructure, prepared by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), provides details on how severe droughts, heavier rainfall events, shifting snowmelt, and more intense tropical storms may cause significant disruptions to the nation’s energy grid, all while the existing system calls for upgrades.
“Our hospitals, homes, and economy depend on an energy infrastructure that will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather events related to climate change,” said Amanda Staudt, PhD, NWF climate scientist and author of the report, according the NWF. “Now is the time for American innovation to rethink how we produce and distribute energy in a more resilient way,” she added
While the disruption of electricity to the US and southern Canada has occurred on a large scale since the early 1990’s, adjustments in the generation of electrical power have been modest, the report notes.
Missouri River flooding
Missouri River flooding
US Army/Sgt. Jonathan Haugen/simminch/flickr
Much of the increase in power disruption is the result of weather, which affects 180,000 customers on average. Non-weather related outages, by comparison, affect around 50,000 customers (not including the massive blackout in August 2003).
The report notes that the 2000-2009 decade was the hottest on record, with 2010 tying for the hottest year on record. Atmospheric greenhouse gases, which hit 390 parts per million (ppm) at the end of 2010, are a factor in rising temperatures.
With extreme weather events on the rise, the report notes they
are showing noticeable trends across the United States and promise to become more severe, especially if climate change continues unabated.
Power outages and disturbance in the US cost its economy between $25 and $180 billion each year, with severe weather being the factor in over half of those outages in recent years.
During the mid 1990s, the country averaged 5 to 20 major outages annually. In the last five years, those numbers have risen dramatically, with around 50 to 100 major outages now occurring each year.
The majority of these weather-related disruptions occur in the electricity distribution sector rather than in electricity generation. Among the factors likely contributing to these increased outages are changes in extreme weather, changing demographics, and energy infrastructure and maintenance practices.
Another trend is the growing number of record hot days across the country, with record cold days becoming less likely. Night-time temperatures are experiencing a striking upward trend, according to the report, and as a result, there has been an approximate doubling of area in the US that experiences unusually hot daily minimum temperatures in the summer.
Based on projections, heat waves are likely to worsen if greenhouse gas emissions are not addressed, with the number of days over 100ºF becoming a significant factor in energy demand. Chicago, for example, could see its number of heat wave days quadruple by the end of this century.
Because warmer air is able to hold more moisture, atmospheric water vapor increases. For every 1ºF in warming, that water vapor increases by about 3 to 4 percent. The most intense rain events in the US over the last 100 years have seen rainfall increase by about 20 percent.
As a result, medium and large river basins in the eastern US have seen an increase in their number of heavy streamflow days. Longer stretches of heavy rainfall leading to major flooding are becoming more common.
These heavy precipitation events are likely to continue and for the Midwest and Northeast, major storms that were historically seen just once every 20 years are now projected to occur as frequently as every 4 to 6 years by the end of this century.
Warming oceans have increased the destructive potential of tropical storms in the North Atlantic by around 50 percent since the 1970s, reflected by longer storm lives and more substantial storm intensities. This is the result of sea-surface temperatures in the North Atlantic’s main developmental areas for tropical storms increasing from 0.9 to 1.3ºF.
Without addressing the issue of carbon pollution, these tropical sea-surface temperatures could increase another 3ºF, triple the warming to date, and lead to storm wind speed increases of 2 to 13 percent.
The Infrastructure
The Gulf of Mexico region is home to a vast oil and gas infrastructure, including approximately 4,000 offshore oil and natural gas rigs. These offshore operations, and onshore operations, are concentrated along the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastlines.
There are also about 31,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline in the Gulf region. In the last 40 years, there have been about two dozen major hurricanes (categories 3-5) make landfall in these four states. The report notes that
More than 25 onshore oil refineries located in the Gulf region were built to meet the climate conditions of the past, not the future.
“Irresponsible energy choices like deepwater drilling coupled with the droughts and famines caused by climate change are a recipe for national security threats,” said Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman national Security Project, the NWF notes. “The nation must transition to more efficient, low-carbon, energy sources and a less vulnerable infrastructure.”
Around 30 percent of America’s oil supply and 20 percent of its natural gas supply comes from the Gulf of Mexico, a region highly vulnerable to these major storms. Much of the oil and gas infrastructure in this area is aging, increasing the possibilities of failure.
Hurricane Rita  2005.
Hurricane Rita, 2005.
Map courtesy NASA
As Americans have seen in recent years, major hurricanes cause significant disruptions to oil and gas supplies, with prices at the pump rising before the storms even reach the Gulf. At minimum, those facilities in the expected path of an approaching storm must begin shutdown processes three days before its arrival, and once workers can return on the tail end of the storm, an additional two to three days to power back up. If there are damages to these facilities, weeks and months can be added to that time frame.
Map of oil and gas infrastructure co-located with hurricane paths in Gulf of Mexico.
Map of oil and gas infrastructure co-located with hurricane paths in Gulf of Mexico.
Map courtesy National Wildlife Federation
Another issue with more extreme weather in the Gulf is the likely increase of oil spills and hazardous material releases. Often overlooked or not mentioned at all, these events are becoming more common, starting with Hurricane Ike in 2004.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused over 400 offshore releases, for a combined spill of 30.2 million liters, according to the report. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill was estimated at 41 million liters. Most of these releases have been occurring within 31 miles of the Gulf coastline, and primarily affecting facilities built before 19977, when tighter design standards went into effect.
Coal transportation across the US will likely be impacted by extreme weather events as well. Mideast and Northeast regions of the country, already experiencing a 31 to 67 percent increase in heavy rainfall events since the 1950s, are expected to see that trend continue. Around 70 percent of all mined coal is transported via rail lines that must pass across or along rivers.
In addition to rail lines, Appalachian coal is also transported by barges. Barge traffic is also being impacted by an aging waterway infrastructure in need of upgrading. Those upgrades, when addressed, must factor in increased precipitation and flood regimes associated with climate change.
The report used the Joint Line as an example of extreme weather’s impact on coal transportation. Owned and operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad, the 103-mile Joint LIne is the only rail line used for coal transport out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It is the only connection point to major rail lines that then transport the coal nationwide.
A heavy rain and snow event in the spring of 2005 combined with accumulated coal dust to destabilize the Joint Line tracks, leading to two separate train derailments. Taking two years to repair the tracks, substantial delays in coal deliveries to power plants occurred across the country.
The Electric Cooperative of Arkansas, for example, reported its summer and autumn coal deliveries in 2005 were down 15 percent. As a result, electric cooperatives in the area were forced to find alternative energy sources, including the shipping of coal from Indonesia.
This one disruption example is estimated to have cost the US $228 million.
Major flooding events, including the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in 1993 and the Mississippi River again in 2008 have caused disruptions of coal transportation, including by rail.
These are yet more reasons for America to shift its focus away from coal dependence, according to the report.
Map of coal shipment routes co-located with heavy rainfall areas.
Map of coal shipment routes co-located with heavy rainfall areas.
Map courtesy National Wildlife Federation
Drought and Heat
According to the report,
Electricity production and water availability are on a collision course in many parts of the United States, but nowhere as dramatically as in the Southwest.
Even without factoring in projections for precipitation and drought, water usage by the energy sector is projected to increase by 30 percent within the next 20 years, with much of that demand occurring in the western US, already under intense pressure for freshwater resources.
The generation of electricity in the southwestern US will likely see disruptions from water shortages as severe droughts continue to worsen and expand in that region. Around 89 percent of electricity in the US is generated by thermoelectric plants dependent on water for cooling operations.
As temperatures across the country increase, so to does evaporation. The report notes that, in the Southwest, there may be a
transition to a more arid climate on a permanent basis over the next century and beyond.
Among the trends noted in the report, global temperature increases over the last few decades have resulted in increased evaporation. This increase in evaporation has led to the planet’s fraction of dry land increasing from 15 percent to 25 percent.
Global circulation patterns of the atmosphere have changed as well. Dry belts have expanded in a pole-ward manner and is likely to cause areas adjacent to deserts, such as the US Southwest, to become drier.
Another trend in climate change is shrinking snow pack resulting from increased precipitation in winter months. Additionally, snow pack is melting earlier in the year, with snow melt discharge now occurring 5 to 20 days earlier than it did 50 years ago.
If these trends continue, major water shortages could occur in late summer and autumn months, with a likely in increase of winter and early spring floods.
Map of power plants co-located with areas projected for future water shortages.
Map of power plants co-located with areas projected for future water shortages.
Map courtesy National Wildlife Federation
In conclusion, the report calls for the undertaking of a detailed nationwide climate vulnerability assessment for the energy industry, with the development of climate adaptation plans to address those vulnerabilities.
The US must also reduce its large-scale vulnerability through the promotion of distributed electricity generation as well as increased energy efficiency. Off-shore wind and distributed solar voltaic are two viable alternative energy sources in that (1) they require minimum water to operate, a critical factor as water shortages become more common; (2) they avoid flooding and storm disruptions because they do not involve the transportation of fuel cross country; and (3) they are not as heavily dependent on an extensive power grid subjected to weather-related outages.
A reduction of carbon pollution is essential if America wants to minimize the effects of future extreme weather events, with the report stating today’s levels of carbon pollution must be reduced by at least 80 percent by 2050.
These goals are attainable, the report notes, but
we must take aggressive action now to avoid the most worrisome impacts.
More about Global warming, Climate, Change, energy grid, Power grid
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