Increasing temperatures, decreasing water availability, more intense storms, and sea level rise will each independently, and in some cases in combination, affect the ability of the United States to produce and transmit electricity from fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sources, according to a report US Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather from the Department of Energy.
Since the start of the 20th century, average annual temperatures across the US have increased about 1.5°F. Recent weather conditions are no exception to this trend.
July 2012 was the hottest month in the US since record keeping began in 1895, and 2012 was the warmest year overall, marked by historic high temperatures and droughts, above average wildfires, multiple intense storms that disrupted power to millions, and multiple extreme heat waves.
These trends, which are expected to continue, could restrict the supply of secure, sustainable, and affordable energy critical to the nation’s economy. These changes are also projected to affect the nation’s demand for energy and its ability to access, produce, and distribute oil and natural gas.
Significant findings in the report include:
- Thermoelectric power generation facilities are at risk from decreasing water availability and increasing ambient air and water temperatures, which reduce the efficiency of cooling, increase the likelihood of exceeding water thermal intake or effluent limits that protect local ecology, and increase the risk of partial or full shutdowns of generation facilities
- Energy infrastructure located along the coast is at risk 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
- Oil and gas production is vulnerable to decreasing water availability given the volumes of water required for enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, and refining
- Renewable energy resources, particularly hydropower, bioenergy, and concentrating solar power can be affected by changing precipitation patterns, increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, and increasing temperatures
- Electricity transmission and distribution systems carry less current and operate less efficiently when ambient air temperatures are higher, and they may face increasing risks of physical damage from more intense and frequent storm events or wildfires
- Increasing temperatures will likely increase electricity demand for cooling and decrease fuel oil and natural gas demand for heating.
Some of these effects, such as higher temperatures of ambient water used for cooling, are projected to occur in all regions. Other effects may vary more by region, and the vulnerabilities faced by various stakeholders may differ significantly depending on their specific exposure to the condition or event. However, regional variation does not imply regional isolation as energy systems have become increasingly interconnected. Compounding factors may create additional challenges. For example, combinations of persistent drought, extreme heat events, and wildfire may create short-term peaks in demand and diminish system flexibility and supply, which could limit the ability to respond to that demand.