Climate change is already pummeling energy infrastructure


A massive cold front settled over the American Southwest in the early days of February 2011. The mercury in Albuquerque hit seven below zero; snow birds in Tucson shivered in sub 20-degree temps; and Nogales, on the border with Mexico, reached a frigid 11 degrees. While such temperatures may seem balmy to northerners, they wreaked havoc in places where playing a few rounds of golf in January is the norm. In a zoo in Chihuahua, Mexico, the cold killed 65 animals. In Phoenix, water pipes froze and burst, flooding homes. And all across the region, the cold drove the energy infrastructure haywire.

On the evening of Feb. 1, a pressure sensing line at the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., froze, ultimately taking out a unit of the power plant, along with 330 megawatts of generation. Over the next 12 hours, the efforts to replace that lost generation were fraught with problems, some cold-related, others not, creating a cascading failure that took out power to 65,000 homes and businesses served by the Salt River Project utility. Meanwhile, over in New Mexico and Texas, the cold hit the natural gas fields and pipelines, resulting in a substantial dip in production during a time when the cold was driving natural gas demand up to unprecedented levels. That, in turn, diminished fuel supply to natural gas-fired power plants which, along with other cold-related issues, caused rolling blackouts. Over the course of three days, 4.4 million people were without power across three states, and gas for heating was in short supply.

The Department of Energy has created an interactive map showing a few of the impacts climate change is already having on our energy systems. Source:

It’s another reminder of how extreme weather -- be it heat, cold, wind, snow, hurricanes, lightning or wildfires -- can mess not just with the electrical grid, but with almost all aspects of our nation’s energy infrastructure, and that climate change, by enhancing the extremity, will only raise the havoc level. In fact, it already has. That’s according to a new Department of Energy report about the impact climate change will have on the energy sector, from solar plants to the gas fields. The report also comes with a nifty map that charts some of the impacts that have already occurred (though it doesn’t include the 2011 deep freeze), including:

• During the summer of 2010, weak precipitation levels brought down river volumes in the Northwest, leaving dams unable to generate necessary amounts of hydropower. It cost the Bonneville Power Administration $164 million;
• Much the same happened down on Lake Mead that fall, reducing Hoover Dam’s generation by 23 percent;
• Over in Illinois, in 2006, the Quad Cities nuke plant had to dial down power production because the water from the Mississippi was too warm to cool the reactors;
• And in Arizona, plans for the Hualapai Valley Solar plant had to be dramatically altered to use an effluent- or air-cooled rather than groundwater-cooled system because of water shortage concerns.
• Drought has made it difficult or costly to acquire the millions of gallons of water needed for hydraulic fracturing oil and gas wells.

Wildfires have taken down major transmission lines leading to blackouts. Millions of air conditioners running at full blast to make extreme heat habitable have overloaded the grid, causing it to fail. Transmission lines sag under heat and load, get tangled in trees, and wipe out power to millions. Many coal, gas and nuclear power plants can’t operate efficiently without cool water for cooling -- tepid stuff just won’t do. And so on.

As the world warms -- and 2012 is now on record as one of the warmest years in history -- energy, which we use in ever-increasing amounts, will get more and more difficult to extract, generate and deliver. I guess that’s fitting, considering the hefty contribution energy extraction, production and consumption has made to climate change.

None of this is super surprising, but what’s notable is how the Department of Energy has dived right in, explicitly tying a lot of our energy and grid failures to extreme weather, and implicitly attributing that weather to climate change. Also worth paying attention to are the tools the DOE is offering to help track those impacts, particularly this real-time storm vs. energy infrastructure tracker. It also allows you to go back and watch past storms clobber transmission lines, power plants and the like.

Track storms -- historic and in real time -- as they pummel energy infrastructure. Source: Energy Information Administration.

Of course, these tools don’t necessarily do anything to fix the problem. But there’s something vaguely reassuring, I suppose, in being able to watch our world collapse around us.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

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