The following article was originally published in The New York Times on July 11, 2013. Broder's reporting on the Department of Energy's projections of future costs of energy based on sustained increases in peak demand due to protracted heat waves and alarming shortages of power supply based on limited operational capacity due to water shortages for cooling power plants.
Climate Change Will Cause More Energy Breakdowns, U.S. Warns
WASHINGTON — The nation’s entire energy system is vulnerable to increasingly severe and costly weather events driven by climate change, according to a report from the Department of Energy to be published on Thursday.
The blackouts and other energy disruptions of Hurricane Sandy were just a foretaste, the report says. Every corner of the country’s energy infrastructure — oil wells, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants — will be stressed in coming years by more intense storms, rising seas, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts.
The effects are already being felt, the report says. Power plants are shutting down or reducing output because of a shortage of cooling water. Barges carrying coal and oil are being delayed by low water levels in major waterways. Floods and storm surges are inundating ports, refineries, pipelines and rail yards. Powerful windstorms and raging wildfires are felling transformers and transmission lines.
“We don’t have a robust energy system, and the costs are significant,” said Jonathan Pershing, the deputy assistant secretary of energy for climate change policy and technology, who oversaw production of the report. “The cost today is measured in the billions. Over the coming decades, it will be in the trillions. You can’t just put your head in the sand anymore.”
The high temperatures were accompanied by record-setting drought, which parched much of the Southwest and greatly reduced water available for cooling fossil fuel plants and producing hydroelectric power. A study found that roughly 60 percent of operating coal plants are in areas with potential water shortages driven by climate change.
Rising heat in the West will drive a steep increase in demand for air conditioning, which has already forced blackouts and brownouts in some places. The Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory found that air conditioning demand in the West will require 34 gigawatts of new electricity generating capacity by 2050, equivalent to the construction of 100 power plants. The cost to consumers will exceed $40 billion, the lab said.
Mr. Pershing, who joined the Department of Energy this year after serving for several years as the State Department’s deputy special envoy for climate change, said much of the climate disruption was already baked into the system from 150 years of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He said that the nation must continue efforts to reduce climate-altering emissions, but that the impact of those efforts would not be felt for years. In the meantime, Mr. Pershing said, cities, states and the federal government must take steps to adapt and improve their resiliency in the face of more wicked weather.
President Obama referred to these vulnerabilities in his speech on climate change at Georgetown University on June 25. He said Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Northeast in October, had provided a wake-up call, if one was needed after the run of climate-related disasters in recent years.
“New York City is fortifying its 520 miles of coastline as an insurance policy against more frequent and costly storms,” Mr. Obama said. “And what we’ve learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we’ve got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and businesses, and withstand more powerful storms. That means stronger sea walls, natural barriers, hardened power grids, hardened water systems, hardened fuel supplies.”
After Sandy, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York commissioned a study of how to protect the city against storms. The report called for nearly $20 billion in investments to enhance resilience, roughly equivalent to the costs of responding to the hurricane. The study said that unless the city took precautions, the next storm of similar magnitude could cost the city $90 billion.
The new Department of Energy report does not provide any firm estimates of expected costs and provides no specific recommendations for immediate action, much of which would be the responsibility of the companies that produce and transport all forms of energy.
But the authors do suggest a series of steps to reduce vulnerability. Power plants and oil drillers should use less water and recycle what they use. Electricity providers should harden their transmission grids and build emergency backup systems. Operators of hydroelectric dams should improve turbine efficiency. And residential and commercial energy users should find ways to reduce demand.