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Mounting Evidence: Climate Change Threatens America’s Energy Sector

Extreme weather and climate events such as storms, floods, droughts and wildfires visibly impact not only our communities and livelihoods, but also our resources and related infrastructure. In its latest report, U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) warns that domestic energy supplies are likely to face more severe disruptions given rising temperatures that result in extreme weather events. The report accurately outlines the risks climate change poses to the energy sector in the United States and serves as a wake-up call on this critical issue, which I highlighted in my testimony before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year.

Current and Potential Future Impacts

Building on the national Climate Action Plan released by President Obama last month, the DOE report assesses how recent weather events have impacted critical energy and electricity infrastructure across the country. In the last decade, three trends in extreme weather and climate have caused major disruptions to our nation’s ability to produce, deliver and store energy: increasing air and water temperatures; decreasing water availability across regions and seasons; and increasing intensity and frequency of storms, flooding and sea level rise. These disruptions range from high-profile events such as the outages resulting from Hurricane Sandy to less-visible yet pervasive ones such as the drought last summer.

Rising temperatures

Increasing air and water temperatures fuel an increase in electricity demand for cooling, which in turn raises air conditioning costs. For example, a study in Massachusetts estimated that rising temperatures could increase demand for electricity in the state by 40 percent by 2030. More frequent and severe wildfires pose significant risk of physical damage to infrastructure – power lines, transformers, and electricity distribution systems.

Scarcer water resources

Decreasing water availability and increased surface water temperatures associated with lower flows affect cooling at thermoelectric power plants and reduces available generation capacity. This increases the risk of shutdowns at coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants. In addition, drought and declining snowpack affect the availability of hydroelectric power generation. Reductions in river levels also impede barge transport of hydrocarbons and coal, resulting in delivery delays and increased cost.

Storms, floods and sea level rise

America has more than 280 electric power plants, oil and gas refineries, and other energy facilities located on low-lying lands vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. Tropical storm wind speeds and the intensity of hurricanes are projected to increase as atmospheric and sea surface temperatures rise. They pose immediate risk to energy infrastructure located along the coasts. Sea level rise and storm surges place coastal thermoelectric power plants and offshore oil and gas facilities at increased risk of damage and disruption, while increased intensity and frequency of flooding poses a risk to inland facilities.

The Way Forward: Prioritizing Vulnerabilities

2012 was the second-costliest year for weather and climate disasters in the history of the United States. Estimated damage of approximately $115 billion was driven primarily by two events – Hurricane Sandy ($65 billion) and an extended drought ($30 billion). Climate-preparedness in the energy sector demands development of useful technologies, effective stakeholder engagement, greater access to information to support decision-making, and a policy framework that enables it all. Certain steps the DOE report recommends:

  • Greater coordination between public and private stakeholders – governments, industry, and civilians – to identify risks and vulnerabilities, and protect against them;
  • Improving efficiency across the grid and strengthening transmission lines, power plants, oil and gas refineries, and other energy equipment;
  • Promoting the implementation of practices and technologies that are already improving resilience to climate change, including deployment of dry cooling technology for thermoelectric power plants, more energy-efficient building technologies, and storm-hardened energy infrastructure.

Beyond doubt, climate change impacts America’s energy infrastructure. The billions of dollars in losses already incurred from extreme weather and climate disasters show that more needs be done.

On the bright side, the United States doesn’t have to choose between energy security and a climate-secure future. The country has abundant clean energy resources that are up to the task of mitigating climate change while contributing to energy security. Given this energy security, implementing effective policies and working with stakeholders to prioritize vulnerabilities can go a long way.

The DOE report is yet another indication of the recognition among key actors that climate change is a significant risk to business interests and economic vitality. Such evidence of threats to the traditional, carbon-based energy system should play a significant role in the broader debate over America's energy future.

  • LEARN MORE: Explore how climate change impacts energy infrastructure in your region here.

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