Let’s get the electricity sector ready for a world with a very different climate.
My phone has been ringing off the hook this week. Well, my phone does not have a hook, but I’ve been busy. Why? Because California is literally on fire, in the middle of a historic heatwave, during an epidemic, two months before an election that will decide the future of… oh well…. so much! The question I am being asked over and over is, “Does this have anything to do with climate change?” The answer is: Ja. Si. Yes. Zee ha’a. Kyllä. Ken. Vâng. So let me spell this out for you and then focus on what this means for the energy sector, and maybe most importantly what we should do about it.
Climate change is here and has left its fingerprints all over the place. I helped write a chapter on this for the IPCC’s last assessment report. We showed that you can detect and measure impacts of warming and sea level rise across the globe by reading close to 1,000 papers. It was super fun. If you’d like a map, here you go.
If you’re not convinced and think we’re just a bunch of leftist hippies spouting nonsense, I invite you to visit the Berkeley Earth Project’s site, led by a former climate skeptic, showing that it’s gotten warmer pretty much everywhere and that there really is no other factor that can explain this warming other than anthropogenic emissions. The science on attribution is advancing rapidly. If you’re interested, I would suggest checking out Noah Diffenbaugh’s work at that other school around here.
One of the big questions on everybody’s mind right now is whether climate change leads to an exacerbation of wildfire conditions on the west coast. Well, here’s some new science for you. If you run some fancy climate models with and without additional human made greenhouse gases in them, you can calculate what climate would have been like in the absence of that climate change. And the news is not good. They find that “the observed frequency of autumn days with extreme […] fire weather—which we show are preferentially associated with extreme autumn wildfires—has more than doubled in California since the early 1980s” and climate change has increased the probability of this extreme weather. To translate. Climate change is not the match that lights the fires, but it’s the equivalent of pouring gasoline on kindling to make it really go. So while we’re all mad that PG&E and that gender reveal party lit some of the major fires, there is another actor here.
So what does this new normal mean for the electricity sector? It’s like the old testament. Heat, Floods and Fire!
1) Demand goes up! When LA’s future summers will look like the three hottest days of the 1980sand San Francisco’s climate looks like Fresno’s, demand goes up. The grid will of course need to be built for those days (in theory). So if peak demand goes up, we need more peaker capacity. And make sure we calculate those reserve margins appropriately, CPUC.
2) Transmission capacity goes down. Hot wires are worse at shipping electrons around. So when demand is already high, the wires that get the electricity to your home and company are “smaller”.
3) Generation is less efficient. When it’s hot outside, certain power plants become slightly less efficient. This means for each therm of gas going in, you get less power coming out. And generators are more likely to conk out completely in extreme heat, when you need them most.
1) Energy infrastructure is at risk. When you add three feet of sea level, and a storm on top, lots of areas that were previously safe from so-called 100-year floods (a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year) no longer are. For the electricity sector this means that power plants, substations and transmission infrastructure that are built already, or will be built, need to take this new normal into account.
1) Transmission infrastructure is at risk. When there are fires, transmission infrastructure can become less efficient due to the heat from the fires or deposition of ash on wires. Or if a fire directly threatens major transmission lines, these may have to be shut down and may negatively affect big demand areas, like LA and the Bay Area.
2) Generation infrastructure is at risk. Plants in areas affected by fires are at risk – just like any other fixed asset.
3) Dimming affects renewable production. If, like it did last week, smoke from fires lead to large reductions in sunlight reaching solar generators, generation might decrease. While many of us noticed a large reduction in generation from our rooftop solar, utility scale solar was largely unaffected due to its location far away from the fires.
So are all of these equally important? No. It’s the impact on demand that matters most. As my friend Severin, who sits on CAISO’s board, will tell you all day long, meeting demand on hot days is the hard part. Especially when it’s hot outside across the West and it’s harder for California to import electrons from Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.
What should we do?
I think there are a few immediate things regulators can take into account.
1) Listen to science and figure out how climate change is going to affect peak demand in California and in our neighboring states in a world with a changed climate. The California Energy Commission only started doing this somewhat crudely two years ago. This is going to require more science and modelling and I am excited to see that the CEC is funding some projects on this topic (I am not on any of them, so this flattery is sincere).
2) After listening to that science, plan accordingly and revisit reserve margin requirements to make sure there is adequate capacity available.
3) Aggressively push innovative proposals such as those proposed by Meredith, Duncan and Severin last week to manage demand when supply is short.
4) When planning for new energy infrastructure investments, proposals should have to include planning for the life of the gadget – taking into account the changing climate impacts at that location. This is not hard, but should be required.
5) Manage the matches. We are not going to stop climate change. We need to continue aggressive efforts to reduce the risk of energy infrastructure setting off fires. That will be expensive.
So if you read this far, thank you. These are scary times. Let’s continue working on cost-effective solutions to this long-run problem. There is lots to do!