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How vulnerable is the energy sector to extreme weather?

  • 12 Nov 2013, 12:15
  • Freya Roberts

Sourced under creative commons

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 our society.

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 Change (IPCC) 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 less certainty.


Future Extremes Updated

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 cool.

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 say.

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.

Another 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 Patt et al, although heat waves could reduce their efficiency by a small amount.

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.

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