By Dan Arvizu, Director, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Our climate is changing. Hurricanes batter coastal cities with greater force, global temperatures are rising, Arctic ice is melting. Droughts are longer and more devastating, once-a-century storms are becoming once-a-decade storms.

It is imperative that America hasten its response to climate change’s debilitating effect on its energy infrastructure. Our future depends on it. That response must be multi-pronged, combining protective measures, smarter technologies, and energy efficiency. The pace, scale, and scope of our responses must accelerate.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan calls for federal agencies to encourage and support smart investment in climate resilient infrastructure. And New York has provided a model at the state level.
Hurricane Sandy, which left 8.2 million people without power for weeks on end, cost $71 billion in total loss, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Last November, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened the NYS 2100 Commission in response not only to Hurricane Sandy, but other recent and unprecedented severe weather events such as Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. I was pleased to serve on the commission, helping to evaluate key vulnerabilities in the state’s critical infrastructure system and to recommend actions to strengthen and improve the resilience of those systems.

We advised that New York adopt measures that promote the use of green and natural infrastructure through direct investment, incentive programs and education. Such an approach would rely in part on natural systems such as wetlands and dunes to serve as natural buffers against storm surges. The measures we recommended for New York – protect key transmission and distribution lines, strengthen marine terminals, build a modern more resilient grid that can take advantage of renewables – can be a model for improving energy infrastructure nationwide.

The Evidence

Just in the past decade, extreme climactic conditions have shattered and shocked nearly every region of the country. This year, Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory helped put together a report, “U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather,” which noted that there have been 144 weather related disasters since 1980 in which overall damages reached or exceeded $1 billion.

America is not immune to global warming, with average annual temperatures across the 48 contiguous states rising approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the dawn of the 20th century. Last year, four coal-fired power plants and four nuclear power plants in Illinois got so hot from generating electricity in the face of record-breaking temperatures that they had to apply for special permission to discharge water that was hotter than allowed by the federal Clean Water Act. Two years ago, high temperatures and resulting high A/C demand tripped a transformer and transmission line in Yuma, Ariz., leading to the shutdown of San Onofre nuclear power plant. More than 2.5 million power customers in the San Diego area lost power as a result. In 2010, water in Nevada’s Lake Mead dropped to levels not seen since 1956, reducing Hoover Dam’s generating capacity to 23 percent.

Lack of water has grounded river traffic and prompted some municipalities to ban water-intensive activities. For instance, in 2012, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grounded traffic along the Mississippi River, slowing the barge transport of petroleum and coal. And reduced snowpack in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada cut hydroelectric power by about 8 percent.

Tipping Points, Intelligent Response

Climate change is like bad compound interest – multiplying the returns, but in a negative way. Higher temperatures can mean both that electricity is in greater demand and that there is less water available to generate that electricity. When flooding or drought shuts down river transportation, it takes more petroleum to ship petroleum from state to state. And it’s happening when other sources of petroleum – from the far north and Alaska – are threatened by higher temperatures that are thawing the permafrost on which refineries and pipelines are built.

Combinations of persistent drought, extreme heat, and wildfire are likely to create short-term peaks in demand that could reduce the system’s flexibility and our ability to respond to demand.

We have the ability and know-how to respond to the vulnerabilities in our energy sector, but it will take cooperation and foresight.

Water – using it wisely and using only what is necessary – is a crucial place to start. Most renewable energy generation uses much less water than traditional ways of making electricity. Policy-makers should encourage water-efficient technologies for producing oil and natural gas, shale gas, shale oil, and coal-bed methane. Innovative cooling technologies can boost thermoelectric power generation. Increased use of non-traditional water sources, such as municipal waste and brackish groundwater in applications that are safe, can make a big difference. Capturing and re-using water should be maximized.

Each acre foot of water not used eases pressure on the entire system. Researchers are demonstrating drought-tolerant crops that can be feedstock for bioenergy production. And they have come up with more water-efficient ways of turning that feedstock into biofuel.

Given the magnitude of recent climate-related calamities, and the inevitability of more in the coming years, it is imperative that we grasp the opportunity to build a more resilient energy sector. That requires hardening transmission and distribution lines, power plants, oil and gas refineries, and offshore oil and gas platforms. Priority must be placed on improving grid equipment and operations to better manage the complex, ever-changing load conditions – and to increase reliability and resilience.

At the NREL, we can help improve the grid’s resilience by inviting utilities in to modernize the grid through energy systems integration and work on microgrids. A key feature of a microgrid is its ability during a utility grid disturbance to separate and isolate itself from the utility seamlessly with little or no disruption to the loads within the microgrid. When the utility grid returns to normal, the microgrid automatically resynchronizes and reconnects itself to the grid in an equally seamless fashion.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers and the U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report, “Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages,” which calls for increased cross-sector investment in the electric grid and identifies strategies for modernizing the grid to better prevent power outages. Those strategies include energy storage to improve system stability along with microgrids, and advanced communication and controls.

Along with better technology and energy-smart policies, decision-makers need better information in the form of data, models, tools, and vulnerability assessments to help them understand climate risks. That should include information on tipping points – the threshold beyond which there are irreversible changes or damages of unexpected magnitude. Lawmakers need to know about aggregate vulnerabilities that can lead to cascading impacts.

Better analysis of costs and benefits needs to be included in the improved data collection. Crucially, easily understandable information must be available on the benefits of preventing infrastructure damage and the economic losses due to disruption of energy production and delivery. Better tools and models can evaluate the trade-offs between various forms of energy production and adaptation measures. They can even show where adapting to climate change fits with other relevant national priorities.

All stakeholders – from federal officials, to utilities, to local lawmakers and consumers – must communicate to help ease the transition to a more climate-resilient energy sector.

Disaster Recovery Proves Resiliency, Innovation

Enough focus on the problem. NREL, working together with private industry, has demonstrated that America can come back stronger than ever from regional and local devastation to energy infrastructure.

Greensburg, Kan., was on a slow downward spiral in 2007 when a powerful tornado ripped through the town, destroying 95 percent of the buildings and homes. The town leaders made a strategic decision to make the town better than ever by becoming a model of energy efficiency. Now, Greensburg is the site of the most LEED Platinum energy-efficient buildings per capita of any town or city in the world. With the help of NREL, Greensburg now has nine LEED Platinum buildings, including the K-12 school, the city hall, the county hospital and the biggest employer in town, the John Deere dealership. Platinum is the best Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design rating given by the U.S. Green Building Council. Wind turbines and solar panels sprouted on prairie land. Greensburg’s fortunes rebounded and now it’s a tourist stop – for families, architects and engineers interested in energy efficiency and green energy.

When Hurricane Sandy pounded the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, it left in its wake devastation that affected 24 states. Utilities reported damage to more than 7,000 transformers and 15,200 power poles; two oil refineries with capacity of 300,000 barrels per day were shut down; and the Colonial Pipeline from the far away Gulf of Mexico wasn’t fully operational as a result of the power outage.
After Hurricane Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency called on NREL to help in disaster recovery planning efforts among federal, state, and local agencies. Two NREL teams supported FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework, guiding energy sustainability efforts and ensuring the inclusion of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the recovery plan.

Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for a full week in parts of downtown Manhattan. A more distributed and resilient energy infrastructure can overcome those long delays. Renewable energy can do much more than reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the face of more and more extreme weather events, “islanded” microgrids that combine renewable energy with backup storage can keep local power going when the grid goes down. And that can save both money and lives.

Bringing together the right people at the right time can create a transformational change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, NREL researchers performed technical analyses on specific energy and sustainability issues, including analysis of the estimated lifecycle cost savings for residential energy efficiency investments.

Disasters are terrible, but they also offer opportunities to rebuild using energy efficiency and sustainability along with stronger, more resilient towers and lines. There is a window of opportunity to influence the recovery efforts and to show all that is possible in a rebuilt infrastructure. Billions of dollars are spent each year on disaster recovery and rebuilding. It’s critical that we reinvest in our infrastructure using technology solutions for tomorrow.

While we hope that events like Hurricane Sandy are few and far between, we know they will happen. It is essential that cities, counties and utilities across the nation protect their key electric transmission and distribution lines, strengthen their marine terminals, relocate key fuel-related infrastructure to higher elevations and reinforce pipelines, and take other preventive measures.

It also will be in everyone’s interest to redesign the electric grid to be more flexible, dynamic and responsive. That should include increasing the generation from renewable, distributed sources and making the grid electric-vehicle ready. We can’t prevent disasters from happening, but we can make our grid and infrastructure systems as disaster resilient as possible.