I don’t think I state anything controversial when I say that the energy sector is weather- and climate-dependent. Both day-to-day weather and longer-term climate variability have impacts on supply, demand, transport and distribution, and energy markets. This is exemplified in Figure 1. However, what is becoming ever more critical is an appreciation, and ultimately a strong and proper uptake, of climate change data for an improved management and planning of energy systems. This is something that is relatively new to the energy industry but, based on the many discussions I have been having with energy experts, I expect it to considerably increase over the next few years and decades.
Figure 1. Weather and climate impact the energy sector across all timescales (source: © 2016 Troccoli)
Several factors—including the growing role of renewables, new locations for generation and transmission facilities, and unprecedented climate change observed in the last several decades—have led to both increased impacts on assets and more challenges to ensure proper system adequacy. With even more dramatic climatic changes projected over the rest of the 21st century, it is abundantly clear that energy systems planning must consistently utilise climate information. In particular, it is important that this information is produced at an appropriate scale to properly evaluate impacts, vulnerabilities, and risks. This includes computing quantitative information about changes in climate characteristics, such as change in frequency of heat waves, using the best tools available.
What Possible Carbon Emission Scenarios Could Mean for Power Generation and Infrastructure
While real-time impacts are hard to miss, since they pass before our eyes almost weekly somewhere on the globe—e.g., as transmission lines are felled due to storms or wildfires—in order to understand the full scale of the problem ahead of us, we can take a few steps back to view the bigger picture, for instance, how generation may be affected under some of the possible carbon emission scenarios. As an example, it has been estimated that usable capacity of hydropower plants could be reduced globally by 60 to 70 percent over the period 2040–2069 compared to 1971–2000, as a result of reduced streamflow (see Figure 2). Admittedly this is for the more severe emission scenario, the so-called RCP8.5, but less strong scenarios would still produce a commensurate hydropower production reduction.
Figure 2. Change in streamflow (as a percentage) between the periods 2040–2069 and 1971–2000 for carbon emission scenario RCP8.5 (source: Van Vliet et al., 2016)
Turning our attention now to another component of energy systems, climate change is expected to severely impact electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure. In a recent study addressing power systems across the United States of America, climate change projections from five models have been used to assess the annual average climate change costs for the 2080–2099 period, considering two emissions scenarios, three adaptation strategies, and nine impact categories. In all cases examined, climate change is expected to reduce grid infrastructure performance and, in some cases, reliability. Total electricity infrastructure costs are projected to rise considerably under climate change, with annual cost increases running in the tens and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, depending on the approach taken to account for expected changes in the climate (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Annual average climate change costs (billions $2017/year) projected for the 2080-2099 period (source: Fant et al., 2020)
Moving Toward Greater Use of Climate Information by the Energy Industry
It is apparent that the risks posed by climate change can be very serious, not only from an economic point of view, but also in terms of energy access and therefore social equitability and productivity. It thus becomes critical for the energy industry to learn how to effectively use climate information. This involves, first, identifying their business sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and subsequently making use of the atmospheric climatology and projections to develop the processes necessary to transform the meteorological information into decision aids, taking studies such as those highlighted above as references. The use of reliable quantitative information about climate change impacts is the ultimate objective: this includes estimations of uncertainty ranges of energy system operating and planning characteristics based on, amongst other inputs, climate data.
Specifically for future outlooks, a wide range of climate projection data from global earth system models is routinely produced, with a huge amount of data made available under the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6, https://pcmdi.llnl.gov/CMIP6), a project coordinated under the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling. These are data which cover the entire globe but at a rather coarse geographical resolution (100-200 km). Regional and national models are also available, such as regional limited area climate models with a higher resolution (10-50 km), developed under the global CORDEX framework (http://www.cordex.org), or national efforts like the UK Climate Projections (UKCP) 2018. In addition, visualisation tools are being developed to assist with the assessment of climate data, which don’t require expert knowledge or an understanding of complex datasets and specialised data formats. For instance, the World Energy and Meteorology Council (WEMC) is hosting the European Climatic Energy Mixes tool (ECEM, http://ecem.wemcouncil.org, also with an updated interface: https://c3s-edu.wemcouncil.org), developed as part of the major EU programme Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). This contains both climate and power data that can be used to evaluate different power system adaptation scenarios. This tool, currently available for the European domain, is being expanded to cover the entire globe (updates will be available via https://www.wemcouncil.org).
Looking Ahead: Identifying Impediments to Using Climate Information
In summary, climate data and projections can be used in a variety of ways to assist the energy industry and policymakers in assessing issues related to energy demand, renewable energy resources and production, risks from extreme events, properties of cooling water for thermoelectric generation, and other operation and planning considerations. In this context, these climate data are becoming ever more critical. The development of regional, site-specific models for various forms of energy, studying the extent to which climate information can be used, and discovering the extent to which such data are actually used in practice, will lead to a better understanding of the possible impediments to using climate information. It will also assist in developing strategies for creating and storing meteorological data, and ultimately lead to more resilient, efficient and sustainable energy systems.
World Energy & Meteorology Council
Fant C, Boehlert B, Strzepek K, Larsen P, White A, Gulati S, Li Y, and Martinich J. 2020. Climate change impacts and costs to U.S. electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure. Energy 195: 116899. doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2020.116899
van Vliet, M.T.H., Wiberg, D., Leduc, S., Riahi, K. 2016. Power-generation system vulnerability and adaptation to changes in climate and water resources. Nature Climate Change 6(4): 375-380.