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Why Climate Data and Energy Planning Go Together

From Scott Carlberg

Why mention extreme weather in a blog site about energy? Weather affects our energy. How much energy is used, how reliable electricity is, how much it costs…

Early in 2019 we had a cold snap in the Carolinas, then a warm streak that had trees pollinating. Back into 20-degree weather in many places this first full week of March. Consider the big back-to-back hurricanes. Carolinians have firsthand experience on something happening in our climate and how it can impact our electric system.

“We’ve seen a marked upward trend in short-duration extreme events,” said Ken Kunkel, a North Carolina State University climate scientist in National Geographic magazine recently. “It’s an obvious trend that’s been going on for the last few decades and continues to go up.”

NOAA image from 3/1/19

NatGeo said, “In the southeast and eastern U.S., the trend toward stronger storm events is primarily driven by strong warming in the oceans that fringe their shores. … toasty oceans feed more vapor into the atmosphere. Then, when storm systems come along to sweep that moisture-rich air onto the continent, out rains the water.”

Hurricanes create wind and water challenges. In a heat wave some power plants are not as efficient, or inefficient power generators must be started to meet high power demand for AC units. (After reading this blog, check our blog about peak electric demand.)

When really cold weather hits, the electric components can be stressed, sometimes to the point they fail. It’s the nature of mechanical and electrical parts – circuit breakers, switches, sensors. Lines can come down. Plants can shut down.

Improving the grid against bad weather is generally known as hardening the system. It works. FPL (Florida Power and Light) improved its system ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Irma caused more than 4 million outages. Almost 2 million were restored within 24 hours. Fast. Almost 100 percent of customers were restored in half the time as in Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Good planning, good execution.

Hardening systems runs from simple, preventative issues such as vegetation management so power lines are not easily downed, to more sophisticated solutions like steel poles versus wood, more sensors to help isolate and fix power problems, or reinforcing overhead lines.

Good information is at the heart of good hardening designs. When utilities put together their “integrated resource plans” they depend on a lot of data to get to a final plan.

From NC State News – “The Abstract”

Smart technical and business people routinely sift ample, diverse data to make good decisions. Having abundant information to plan public infrastructure, like electric service, is useful. Necessary, really. Thorough business plans are not made by ignoring information.

In case you are interested about big-picture weather and energy, the Fourth National Climate Assessment chapter about the Southeast is here. This provides a large-scale look at the thinking about changes that can come. In an article from NC State, What The Climate Assessment Tells Us About Impacts to North Carolina, Aranzazu Lascurain from the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center said, “There are a lot of points worth making here, but I’ll just list a handful (ECC includes only weather-related points):

  • High tide flooding is now posing daily risks to businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation and ecosystems in the Southeast.
  • A longer freeze-free season.
  • Heavier precipitation events.
  • More and longer summer heat waves.
  • Intra-annual droughts are expected to increase, as are wildfires. (ECC adds – think about whether it impacts hydro power.)
  • The Southeast contains many of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country. … [consider changes in] heat waves, and flooding. This, however, does allow the Southeast to re-think development patterns to better adapt to climate.”

Capital investment decisions benefit from forward visibility. Better plans, benefiting consumers, can be made with good information. With data in hand, stress-testing integrated energy plans is smart. Features to test in the electric system can be combinations, for instance, of natural gas prices, extreme weather, plants being off-line or extreme customer demand.

What does this mean to the average consumer? Customers will hear more about:

  • Resilience of the electric system: How utilities, cities and states will need to work together and anticipate different kinds of stressors on the system, and how to handle them.
  • Energy independence: How each customer can manage his or her own fate in energy by being prepared when outages happen.
  • Energy education: Consumers will not have the past “plug-and-play” electric grid in the future. Homes will need to be “smart” to help electric providers quickly assess problems.

Why mention extreme weather and our energy? Because we have seen weather’s effect on us, and see that we will experience it again. Will our planning be fulsome and effective?