How vulnerable is the energy sector to extreme weather?
- 12 Nov 2013, 12:15
- Freya Roberts
Since the 1950s, the world's seen
an increase in the number and intensity of many extreme weather
events, which can be challenging for the infrastructure that powers
As the climate changes, we are also contemplating transforming
energy systems. So what effect will changes in climate extremes
have on energy infrastructure? That's the question examined in a
newly published special
issue of the journal Climatic Change.
Extreme events in the 21st century
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
suggests some types of climate extremes are becoming more
severe as the climate changes.
In its Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC
concluded the world had experienced more hot days and nights,
more heat waves, and more heavy rainfall events since the 1950s.
Similar patterns are projected for the future too, as are changes
in the way damaging events like hurricanes occur, although with
Under extreme heat or stormy conditions such as
these, power systems can be stressed and fail. In October 2002, for
example, storm force winds in England and Wales cut power supplies
to more than
two million people. During the 2003 heat
wave, four nuclear power reactors in
France were shut down when they couldn't be kept
In a special issue of the journal Climatic
Change, researchers have assessed how vulnerable different
energy technologies are in a future with more extreme extremes.
Most parts of the world's varied energy systems face risks, they
Basic processes like extracting and transporting fossil fuels
could be interrupted by a more extreme climate. One article examines
energy infrastructure in the USA, arguing that rail tracks,
pipelines and onshore mining all have the potential to be disrupted
by extreme weather. It also flags that any changes to the intensity
or frequency of tropical storms could damage America's offshore oil
and gas infrastrastructure.
paper highlights that difficulties involved in cooling thermal
power plants as the number of hot days and heat waves increases
could lead to a decline in the efficiency of power stations.
Renewable technologies also face problems. Energy output from
hydropower can be unreliable
during both drought and heavy rain. Other renewables do better,
though. A paper from Pryor
& Barthelmie says wind turbines deployed in northern Europe
and the US are well designed for the wind extremes they are likely
to encounter over their lifetimes.
Solar panels are also fairly resilient to extreme weather, say
et al, although heat waves could reduce their efficiency by a
Planning for resilience
Assessing the vulnerability of energy systems to climate
extremes is particularly important given that, according to the IEA,
$37 trillion of investment will needed in the global energy sector
between now and 2035 to keep pace with rising demand.
It's probably worth thinking about how that
investment can be future-proofed to be better able to cope with
whatever the climate throws at it.