I recently bought a house in southwestern Florida, but not without some reservations. Don’t get me wrong, I love the palm trees and sandy beaches, but what worries me is that the place could be affected by extreme weather and storm surges as the Earth’s climate changes in the future. [Ed. correction made April 17, 2017. The original version of this story had a miscalculation, which showed that sea level was increasing much faster than it actually is. The text in question has been removed.]
Global Warming Is Not a Partisan Issue
We could debate whether humans are to blame for climate change, but that is not the point of this column. Although it does matter why the Earth is warming, and more should be done to put the question to rest, the first step has to be acknowledging that we have a problem.
A person need not be an environmental extremist to observe that the Earth’s average temperature is increasing. As Ken Maize notes in his article, “U.S. Nuclear: From Hope to Despair,” which begins on page 59 of this issue, several well-respected GOP statesmen believe, “Mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore.”
New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to also be a believer. During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil (a company with more than a little at stake in the debate), said, “I came to my personal position over about 20 years as an engineer and a scientist—understanding the evolution of the science—came to the conclusion a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and that the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken.”
Data Implies Trouble
There is a lot of evidence suggesting that climate change is real. Independent analysis, conducted by both NASA and NOAA, showed that the Earth’s 2016 surface temperatures were the warmest logged since modern recordkeeping began in 1880. Last year was the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures, and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, according to NASA.
In mid-February, NOAA reported that sea ice extent on both poles was the smallest ever recorded in January. Arctic sea ice was 8.6% below the 1981–2010 average and Antarctic sea ice was a whopping 22.8% below average. If that’s not enough, on March 1 Reuters reported that a new heat record was recently set near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—it hit 63.5F there, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nearly 90% of the Earth’s ice mass is in Antarctica. If even 10% of that ice melted, sea level would rise 20 feet. Obviously, such an increase would result in chaos around the world, because hundreds of millions of people live in low-lying coastal regions. According to NOAA, 39% of the U.S. population lives in counties that border the ocean.
Failing to Plan Is Planning to Fail
For the power industry, the question of what to do with this information is a good one. At the very least, companies need to consider options for hardening assets and preparing for weather changes. A variety of questions could be asked to which the answers may help power companies prepare for the future.
For example, what effect will extreme weather patterns have on plant operations? Some experts predict that wild swings between drought and flooding will occur more frequently. (We’ve already seen glimpses of that in California and other regions.) If flooding strikes your area, how protected is your facility? At what level would excess water force you to shut down? Are the flood estimates you’re relying on outdated? At the opposite end of the spectrum, will you have enough water to operate? Do you have a contingency plan?
Plants that rely on dry-cooling systems may face scenarios that are nearly as troubling. Ambient temperatures have a drastic effect on heat rejection rates in air-cooled condensers (ACCs). At least one study suggests ACC performance decreases nearly 21% when ambient temperature increases from 71F to 82F. Turbine backpressure increases with ambient temperatures, resulting in a significant efficiency penalty. One remedy, the use of water spray, can help achieve performance goals, but that goes counter to the reason why many ACCs are utilized in the first place—lack of water resources.
Heat is tough on workers too. Ambient conditions inside power plants can be quite extreme, even on typical summer days. If temperatures increase in the future, how will your workers cope with heat stress?
Finally, a recently released paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, suggests that climate change will have “severe impacts on the frequency and intensity of peak electricity demand across the United States.” The study found that significant investment in peak generating capacity would be needed under a business-as-usual scenario. Is your company prepared to meet the demand if hotter weather causes higher peaks or are changes in strategy warranted?
As for me, I’ve got my backup plan. Even though I purchased a house in Florida, I’m not letting go of my Minnesota property just yet. If temperatures continue to increase, the Midwest could become the next tropical paradise and I may be happy I have a place to go back to. ■
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.