Power System Planners Must Account for Climate and Extreme Weather

Climate and extreme weather are increasingly impacting energy systems around the world. Heat waves have spread across the U.S. from coast to coast this summer, and many parts of Europe have also felt the effects. At London’s Heathrow Airport, the temperature soared to 40.2C (104.4F) on July 19, the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK. Drought conditions have made wildfires more intense in places such as California, where six of the seven largest wildfires in the state’s history have occurred since 2020, while flooding ravages other areas, such as Kentucky, where at least 37 people died as a result of intense rains at the end of July. Drought and flooding have also affected many other parts of the world. It is clear extreme weather events are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

In North America specifically, energy system reliability has been tested well beyond its original design, due to changes in the frequency and intensity of weather. In addition, as the grid transforms to a renewable future, extreme weather and environmental conditions such as cloud cover, smoke, smog, and wind may impact the availability of resources whose fuel sources are directly weather dependent, such as wind and solar. Similarly, the impacts of extreme weather on interdependent systems such as gas and electricity may affect the availability of both of those systems due to fuel supply issues.

The State of Reliability

Recently, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a not-for-profit organization charged with ensuring a highly reliable, resilient, and secure North American bulk power system, released its 2022 State of Reliability (SOR), which assesses the grid performance in 2021 and examines key risk factors, including extreme and sustained weather events. The impact of extreme weather upon grid reliability is a consistent theme in four of the six key findings contained in the SOR.

Most decarbonization pathway models project the electric sector as key to reducing emissions in other sectors. As society’s dependence on electricity grows, and we continue electrifying transportation, buildings, and other sectors to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, it will be imperative that we plan and design the power system to handle the additional demand, while simultaneously adapting to more frequent extreme weather events.

Proactive investment, rather than reactive responses following crisis conditions, can result in lower overall costs in the long term, and ensure the societal benefits resulting from a highly reliable, resilient, and secure bulk power system. While many energy companies are working to factor these risks into their system planning, even more benefit can be derived through a consistent and collaborative approach which identifies infrastructure investments needed to better withstand and recover from extreme weather events.

Climate READi

Our two organizations, the NERC and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), were separately formed in the aftermath of the 1965 blackout in New York City, and are focused on enabling reliable, resilient, secure, and affordable electricity. Given the electric sector’s projected role in decarbonizing other sectors, the reliability and resilience of the grid is foundational to achieving the economy-wide emissions reductions needed to meet U.S. climate goals. Electricity resilience is not a barrier to achieving decarbonization, it’s a prerequisite. Therefore, it’s important for the power sector to coalesce around a consistent framework that informs future infrastructure investment and deployment.

EPRI recently launched a new collaborative effort, Climate READi (REsilience and ADaptation initiative): Power. This effort will enable global energy companies, climate scientists, regulators, and other stakeholders, including NERC, to proactively analyze and apply climate data, empowering stakeholders to enhance planning, design, and operation of resilient energy systems. Climate READi will provide a comprehensive, integrated approach to physical climate risk assessment and investment prioritization. The initiative already includes 21 energy companies and will also engage with regulators, national labs, universities, insurers, the financial community, and climate scientists, among others.

Over the next three years, Climate READi will focus on three, simultaneous work streams: application of physical climate data and guidance; energy system and asset vulnerability assessments; and resilience and adaptation planning and prioritization. The resulting framework will account for regional, regulatory, and geographical differences, so stakeholders can use this framework according to the unique conditions in which their system assets operate.

The Power Industry Benefits from Collaboration

We believe collaboration is key to enable improved reliability, resilience, and security of the North American grid. In July 2021, NERC and EPRI signed a memorandum of understanding leveraging our collective knowledge to anticipate, prepare, and respond to power sector challenges more efficiently and effectively.

Climate and weather extremes present a significant and escalating risk because of their broad and compounding effects on power generation, transmission systems, distribution networks, and customer use. Strengthening grid resilience against chronic, long-term, widespread, and acute climate and weather impacts, both now and in the future, will require unprecedented collaboration across energy system stakeholders. Taking these proactive efforts now can help ensure resilient energy for customers in a decarbonized future. To learn more, visit epri.com/READi.

Daniel Brooks is vice president of Integrated Grid and Energy Systems at EPRI, an independent, global energy research organization, and Mark G. Lauby is senior vice president and Chief Engineer at NERC.

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