Climate Change Will Cause More Energy Breakdowns, U.S. Warns
The nation’s entire energy system is vulnerable to increasingly severe and costly weather events driven by climate change, according to a report from the Department of Energy to be published on Thursday.
The blackouts and other energy disruptions of Hurricane Sandy were just a foretaste, the report says. Every corner of the country’s energy infrastructure — oil wells, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants — will be stressed in coming years by more intense storms, rising seas, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts.
The effects are already being felt, the report says. Power plants are shutting down or reducing output because of a shortage of cooling water. Barges carrying coal and oil are being delayed by low water levels in major waterways. Floods and storm surges are inundating ports, refineries, pipelines and rail yards. Powerful windstorms and raging wildfires are felling transformers and transmission lines.
“We don’t have a robust energy system, and the costs are significant,” said Jonathan Pershing, the deputy assistant secretary of energy for climate change policy and technology, who oversaw production of the report. “The cost today is measured in the billions. Over the coming decades, it will be in the trillions. You can’t just put your head in the sand anymore.”
The study notes that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States, and last July was the hottest month in the United States since record keeping began in 1895.
The high temperatures were accompanied by record-setting drought, which parched much of the Southwest and greatly reduced water available for cooling fossil fuel plants and producing hydroelectric power. A study found that roughly 60 percent of operating coal plants are in areas with potential water shortages driven by climate change.
Rising heat in the West will drive a steep increase in demand for air conditioning, which has already forced blackouts and brownouts in some places. The Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory found that air conditioning demand in the West will require 34 gigawatts of new electricity generating capacity by 2050, equivalent to the construction of 100 power plants. The cost to consumers will exceed $40 billion, the lab said.
Mr. Pershing, who joined the Department of Energy this year after serving for several years as the State Department’s deputy special envoy for climate change, said much of the climate disruption was already baked into the system from 150 years of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He said that the nation must continue efforts to reduce climate-altering emissions, but that the impact of those efforts would not be felt for years. In the meantime, Mr. Pershing said, cities, states and the federal government must take steps to adapt and improve their resiliency in the face of more wicked weather.
President Obama referred to these vulnerabilities in his speech on climate change at Georgetown University on June 25. He said Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Northeast in October, had provided a wake-up call, if one was needed after the run of climate-related disasters in recent years.