Saturday, March 23, 2019

US Climate Report Spells out Coming Challenges

By Michael Brooks

The Trump administration on Friday quietly released a major report detailing the impact of climate change on the U.S., posing a stark contrast to the president’s rhetoric on the phenomenon and his inaction to address the problem.

The 1,656-page report is the second volume of the latest National Climate Assessment, the fourth released since Congress passed the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It was prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of representatives from 13 federal agencies, including EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior. More than 300 experts, from both the public and private sectors, contributed to the report.

Climate change is leading to increasingly severe weather and disasters, including wildfires and flooding. The 2017 Tubbs Fire (left) caused an estimated $1.2 billion in damages and destroyed more than 5,000 structures, including 5% of the housing stock in Santa Rosa, Calif. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 caused widespread flooding and knocked out power to 300,000 customers in the area of Port Arthur, Texas (right). | U.S. Air National Guard

The first volume, released in October last year, focused on how human activity is causing changes to the planet and detailed the scientific evidence for the phenomenon. The second volume focuses on the effects of those changes.

“The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country,” the report begins. “More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.”

Work on the fourth assessment began in the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency. Its release alone is significant in that it directly contradicts President Trump’s stance on climate change. But it also doesn’t appear to have been altered or edited in any way to downplay its findings, as some scientists had feared.

“This report makes it clear that climate change is not some problem in the distant future,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the report’s authors. “It’s happening right now in every part of the country. When people say the wildfires, hurricanes and heat waves they’re experiencing are unlike anything they’ve seen before, there’s a reason for that, and it’s called climate change.”

Trump has repeatedly called climate change a hoax. Just two days before the report was released, he tweeted, “Brutal and extended cold blast could shatter ALL RECORDS. Whatever happened to global warming?”

“I’ve seen [the report], I’ve read some of it and it’s fine,” Trump told reporters outside the White House on Monday. “Yeah, I don’t believe it.”

“The report is largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that, despite strong economic growth that would increase greenhouse gas emissions, there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement.

The 1990 law required the administration to prepare an assessment every four years. But the first assessment was not released until 2000, and the George W. Bush administration was sued for missing the deadline for the second, which was eventually released in 2009.

Impacts on the Energy Sector

The report consists of 29 chapters and five appendices. Twenty-five chapters focus on climate change’s impacts to a particular sector or region of the U.S.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Energy Supply, Delivery and Demand.”

Extreme weather and climate change can potentially impact all components of the nation’s energy system, from fuel (petroleum, coal and natural gas) production and distribution to electricity generation, transmission and demand. | Fourth National Climate Assessment Vol. 2

The energy sector “is projected to be increasingly threatened by more frequent and longer-lasting power outages affecting critical energy infrastructure and creating fuel availability and demand imbalances,” according to the report.

As with other sectors’ infrastructure, energy facilities across the U.S. are threatened, though in different ways depending on the region. Structures along the country’s coasts are threatened because of rising sea levels. Increased precipitation will lead to flooding in the Northeast and Midwest, while drought in the West will lead to lower snowpack levels and, thus, reduced hydroelectric capacity.

Perhaps the most unique challenge posed by climate change to the electricity industry, however, is a reduction in generation capacity for thermoelectric power plants, which rely on surface water for cooling.

“Most U.S. power plants, regardless of fuel source (for example, coal, natural gas, nuclear, concentrated solar and geothermal), rely on a steady supply of water for cooling, and operations are projected to be threatened when water availability decreases or water temperatures increase,” the report says. Some plants would potentially need to shut down until their water cools enough to comply with federal discharge temperature regulations.

Rising average temperatures and heat waves will also drastically increase electricity demand for cooling, leading to congestion on transmission and distribution lines and reducing their efficiency.

The reports notes that two major trends in the industry — increased reliance on natural gas and increasing penetration of renewables — provide diversity and flexibility. But reduced water availability will also affect fracking capability, as “during droughts, hydraulic fracturing and fuel refining operations will likely need alternative water supplies (such as brackish groundwater) or to shut down temporarily.”

It also notes that while most service interruptions are caused by transmission and distribution line outages, increased fuel supply disruptions could also affect reliability. “Coal facilities typically store enough fuel on-site to last for 30 days or more, but extreme cold can lead to frozen fuel stockpiles and disruptions in train deliveries,” the report says. “Capacity challenges on existing pipelines, combined with the difficulty in some areas of siting and constructing new natural gas pipelines, along with competing uses for natural gas such as for home heating, have created supply constraints in the past.”

County-level median projected increases in energy expenditures for average 2080-2099 impacts relative to no additional change in climate. | Fourth National Climate Assessment Vol. 2


The last two chapters of the report are devoted to reducing risks through adaptation and emissions mitigation. Many of the measures spelled out are similar to those recommended by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a report released last month, most notably by quickly reducing the use of coal for generation and drastically increasing renewables’ share of the generation mix. (See IPCC: Urgent Action Needed to Avoid Climate Trigger.)

For the electricity industry, the report says infrastructure will need to be hardened against extreme weather by:

  • “adding natural or physical barriers to elevate, encapsulate, waterproof or protect equipment vulnerable to flooding;
  • reinforcing assets vulnerable to wind damage;
  • adding or improving cooling or ventilation equipment to improve system performance during drought or extreme heat conditions;
  • adding redundancy to increase a system’s resilience to disruptions; and
  • deploying distributed generation equipment (such as solar, fuel cells or small combined-heat-and-power generators), energy storage and microgrids with islanding capabilities (the ability to isolate a local, self-sufficient power grid during outages) to protect critical services from widespread outages.”

It also lauds energy efficiency as a means for controlling costs to consumers, which it says will inevitably rise from all the changes.

“The interdependence of critical infrastructure systems increases the importance of electricity resilience, as disruptions to energy services are projected to affect other sectors,” the report says. | Fourth National Climate Assessment Vol. 2

Like the IPCC, the report urges expediency.

“The current pace, scale and scope of efforts to improve energy system resilience are likely to be insufficient to fully meet the challenges presented by a changing climate and energy sector,” it says. “Without substantial and sustained mitigation efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, the need for adaptation and resilience investments to address the impacts of climate change on the energy sector is expected to increase if the most severe consequences are to be avoided in the long term.”