US Energy Department examines climate's impact on infrastructure

The US Department of Energy (DOE) released a report today that assesses how critical US energy and electricity infrastructure is vulnerable to the impacts of recent climate trends.

Historically high temperatures in recent years have been accompanied by droughts and extreme heat waves, more wildfires than usual, and several intense storms that caused power and fuel disruptions for millions of people.

These trends are expected to continue, which could further impact energy systems critical to the nation's economy.

The US Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather report, which builds on President Obama's Climate Action Plan, notes that annual temperatures across the US have increased by about 1.5°F over the last century.

In fact, 2012 was both the warmest year on record in the contiguous US and saw the hottest month since the country started keeping records in 1895. Implications for the US energy infrastructure include:

Increased risk of temporary partial or full shutdowns at thermoelectric power plants because of decreased water availability for cooling and higher ambient and air water temperatures. A study of coal plants, for example, found that roughly 60% of the existing fleet is located in areas of water stress.

Reduced power generation from hydroelectric power plants in some regions and seasons due to drought and declining snowpack.

Risks to energy infrastructure located along the coast from sea level rise, increasing intensity of storms and higher storm surge and flooding—potentially disrupting oil and gas production, refining and distribution, as well as electricity generation and distribution.

Increasing risks of physical damage to power lines, transformers and electricity distribution systems from hurricanes, storms and wildfires that are growing more intense and more frequent.

Increased risks of disruption and delay to fuel transport by rail and barge during more frequent periods of drought and flooding that affect water levels in rivers and ports.

Higher air conditioning costs and risks of blackouts and brownouts in some regions if the capacity of existing power plants does not keep pace with the growth in peak electricity demand due to increasing temperatures and heat waves.

In addition to identifying critical areas at risk from climate change and extreme weather, the report identifies activities already underway to address these challenges, and discusses potential opportunities to make the energy sector more resilient.

Potential future opportunities for federal, state and local governments could include innovative policies that broaden the suite of available, climate-resilient energy technologies and encourage their deployment, improved data collection and models to better inform researchers and lawmakers of energy sector vulnerabilities and response opportunities, and enhanced stakeholder engagement.

These activities will increase the resilience of the US energy infrastructure by "hardening" existing facilities and structures to better withstand severe droughts, floods, storms or wildfires and by contributing to smarter development of new facilities.

The full report is available here.

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