No matter your opinion on climate change, scientists have proven its effects time and time again. And as a result, even the United States Energy Sector – which is responsible for much of this shift in climate patterns – is beginning to prepare for more drastic weather.
In fact, climatic conditions are already affecting energy production and delivery throughout the United States. More severe weather is causing supply disruptions of varying lengths and magnitude. It’s also affecting infrastructure and operations that are dependent upon energy supply. And these disruptions to the nation’s energy supply can ripple through many aspects of modern life. These include water supply, transportation systems, communications, economic development, health, and general comfort. So, let’s learn how and why so that we can better prepare for what’s to come.
Weather Touches Everything, and Everyone
According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, at least three major climate trends happening right now are specifically relevant to the energy sector. Those are:
- Increasing air and water temperatures
- Decreasing water availability in some regions and seasons
- Increasing intensity and frequency of storm events, flooding, and sea level rise
All of these make energy extraction, production, and transmission more difficult, risky, or expensive than it has ever been before. That’s because these climate changes impact many facets of the U.S. energy sector, including:
- Oil and natural gas exploration and production
- Fuel transport
- Thermoelectric power generation
- Renewable energy resources
- Electric grid transmission
- Energy demand
And all of this is made worse by drastic weather conditions. These include extreme cold; wildfires; heat waves and extreme heat; drought; flooding; heavy precipitation, downpours, and hail; and hurricanes and tropical storms. Because the United States – with its diverse geography, extensive coastline, and range of latitudes – experiences numerous and various extreme weather events rather often. And though there are certainly some regional variations, these problems take place across – and impact – the entire United States.
The Vulnerability of Our Energy Infrastructure
According to a report from the United States Government Accountability Office, the nation’s energy supply chain is designed to respond to weather variability. These variations include such events as changes in temperature that affect load or rapid changes in renewable resource availability that affect supply. And these short-term fluctuations are managed by designing redundancies into energy systems, as well as using tools to predict, evaluate, and optimize response strategies in the near term.
However, with its aging infrastructure – some of it over 100 years old – our energy sector is more susceptible than ever before.
In total, the U.S. energy supply chain includes approximately 2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines, 6,600 operational power plants, about 144 operable refineries, and about 160,000 miles of transmission lines. And the majority of these were built to meet the climate conditions of the past, not the future. As a result, every inch of this infrastructure is vulnerable to damage from extreme weather conditions, which can have far-reaching consequences.
For example, in 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged more than 100 platforms and damaged 558 pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. And 6 months after these two hurricanes, 46% of the affected facilities were still shut down. As a result, markets as far away as New York and New England were negatively impacted. From these two storms alone, the energy industry is estimated to have lost $15 billion in 2005, not including the costs for restoration and recovery.
But Why So Many Weather-Related Power Outages?
As the National Wildlife Foundation has reported, severe weather is a factor in more than half of the power outages in recent years. In fact, they’ve increased from about 5 to 20 each year in the mid-1990s to about 50 to 100 each year during the last five years, with significant year-to-year variability. And these extreme weather conditions are only predicted to intensify with further climate change.
Weather and climate models project that hurricane wind speeds will increase by 2-13% and rainfall totals by 10-31% over the next century. And this, of course, will only make weather-related outages more frequent, because more and more of the energy infrastructure is at risk. But here’s the scariest part.
In any given year, each of these extreme weather events can cause billions of dollars in damage. In fact, since 1980, there have been more than 200 extreme weather events in the United States that have each caused $1 billion or more in damage. And, on average, these weather-related disruptions cost the country about $25 billion a year.
So the next time you’re watching the news and you see a report of massive storms, droughts, floods, and more, keep in mind all the energy infrastructure that’s at risk of being damaged. And as we look toward to the future of the energy industry, we must all consider what we can do to make the infrastructure safer, more resilient, and more efficient so it can better weather the storms.