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Hotter Temperatures May Wreak Havoc on SW Energy Infrastructure

Monday, July 8, 2013

Climate change could substantially impact the energy system in the Southwest through less efficient power generation, reduced electricity distribution, and threats to energy infrastructure—all while peak energy demands increase. In this blog, the fourth in a series about the recently released Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest U.S., I expand upon these and other key findings from Chapter 12, which describes the vulnerability of our energy system to climate change. Then coordinating lead author Vince Tidwell, from Sandia National Laboratories, contributes his opinion.

Before we get to how climate change may affect energy in the Southwest, let’s first discuss the current energy infrastructure. As of 2009 (all of the following numbers are from 2009; EIA 2010), the Southwest produced about 12.7% of the nations’ total energy, an increase of 180% from 1960. Of that, 43% was natural gas, 21% crude oil, 19% coal, 10% renewable energy, and 7% nuclear. California, Colorado, and New Mexico were among the nation’s top ten energy-producing states, with California specializing in crude oil and renewable energy production, and Colorado and New Mexico specializing in natural gas production.

Similarly, the Southwest consumed 12.1% of the nation’s total energy (including transportation, industrial, residential, and commercial sectors)—up 255% from 1960. Overall in the region, demand was met by petroleum products (42%), natural gas (32%), coal (13%), renewables (8%), and nuclear power (5%). California dominated consumption, followed distantly by Arizona and Colorado. However, on a per-person basis, California and Arizona had the lowest consumption with 220 million British Thermal Units (BTUs) per person and New Mexico had the highest with 330 BTUs per person.

Looking ahead, climate change has the potential to wreak havoc on our energy infrastructure in a variety of ways. The Assessment authors address potential impacts—as well as adaptation strategies—in several categories:

Energy demand: As temperatures increase, especially summer daytime highs, peak period electricity demands for home and commercial summer cooling will increase.

Electricity generation:

Natural Gas: Warmer temperatures could decrease the capacity and efficiency of natural gas turbines. Other types of electric power plants also may be affected by warming, including coal, nuclear, wind, solar, bio-power, and geothermal. Adaptation measures that could be implemented include installing new types of cooling equipment and expanding existing capacity.

Hydropower: Hydropower generation could be impacted by several factors, such as changes in runoff due to decreased precipitation and increased evaporation, earlier snowmelt, and shifts in the frequency of extreme events. To mitigate these impacts, the authors suggest efficiency upgrades at existing hydroelectric facilities, development of new low-impact facilities, and altered reservoir operations.

Thermoelectric: Thermoelectric generation could become limited by reduced water supplies stemming from drought, which could cause the surface of a reservoir to drop below intake structures, limit the access to water, or raise water discharge temperatures above environmental limits. Mitigation and adaption options include integrated strategic water-energy planning, utilization of non-potable water sources for cooling, and using dry-cooled systems.

Electricity distribution:

Transmission line capacity: Higher temperatures will increase demand for electricity while decreasing the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Two options for coping with and avoiding decreased capacity are to 1) reduce line capacity requirements by producing a larger fraction of power at or near the destination, and 2) place transmission lines underground.

Substation/Transformer capacity: Higher ambient temperatures and high minimum temperatures can affect transformer performance and reduce the peak-load capacity of banks of transformers in substations. Based on the projected number of days with maximum temperatures greater than 95°F, the southern and eastern parts of the Southwest are more at risk of reduced substation peak capacity. One adaptive strategy utility planners can take to offset future losses and increase substation capacities is to proactively install new types of cooling.

Energy infrastructure:

Wildfire risk to electricity transmission: Not only can wildfires—which are predicted to increase in size and frequency due to climate change—physically destroy transmission lines, but they can also affect the capacity of a line through heat, smoke, and particulate matter. The effects of firefighting, such as aircraft dumping loads of fire retardants or preventive shutdowns, can also affect transmission operations. These impacts could be reduced by such means as increasing fire corridors around transmission lines, using transmission line materials that can withstand high heat, and building excess transmission capacity.

Sea-level rise and coastal inundation risk to power plants and substations: In California, coastal energy infrastructure will be at higher risk due to rising sea level, increasing high tide levels, more frequent extreme surge events at high tides, and accelerated shoreline erosion. Adaptive measures include building higher levees to protect existing power plants and constructing new plants at higher elevations, farther from the ocean.

Cost of climate change: Any increase in energy prices due to climate change, such as increased demand and higher temperatures putting stress on the system, will have a direct impact on consumers. Climate policies limiting greenhouse gas emissions, while beneficial for limiting climate change and reducing air pollution, have the potential to increase energy costs to consumers.

Figure 1: Schematic of how climate change may impact energy infrastructure in the Southwest.

Figure 12.5 from Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States.

I asked Tidwell his opinion on energy and climate change in the Southwest:

What do you consider to be the most dreaded or threatening impact(s) to the SW region, and how might they affect the average citizen?

Tidwell: Drought I believe is of most concern. Most people will realize impacts through the discomfort of heat, and irrigation restrictions on their lawns and gardens. Others will be impacted through loss of recreational opportunities such as closed forests, low water for boating/rafting. Farmers will feel the pinch through reduced yields or lost crops/livestock. There are also impacts to the ecosystem through wildfires and beetle kill, which affects everyone.

What is the biggest barrier, and greatest opportunity, for dealing with these impacts?

Tidwell: In terms of opportunity, a strong drought will raise attention and encourage the public/decision-makers to work together to take action. The barrier is the multiplicity of interrelated issues and the great variety of values placed on water and the environment.

What do you wish your local or regional decision-makers would focus on, in order to deal with climate change challenges?

Tidwell: Development of “shortage sharing” agreements in times of drought. That is, expedited plans for dealing with limited streamflow and reservoir levels. Most of New Mexico’s water is adjudicated and will take many years to complete the adjudication process. We need plans for the interim.

What do you view as the most surprising or significant NEW result from your chapter since the 2009 National Climate Assessment?

Tidwell: Drought/heat waves have the potential to impact the electric power system in numerous ways. Although in each case the impacts are relatively small, together they add up. Specific impacts include: increased demand, reduced efficiency in electricity generation, reduced power line capacity, reduced transformer capacity, reduced hydropower production, threatened thermoelectric power production due to limited water availability, and impacts of wildfire on transmission capacity.

What are you most interested in learning more about next?

Tidwell: I was part of the author team for the Water-Energy-Land chapter for the 2013 [National Climate Assessment]. I would like to see a similar chapter developed and explored for the Southwest regional analysis. These cross-sector interactions are of particular interest to me.


In our next two blogs, we’ll wrap up the series discussing adaptation and mitigation options, as well as what’s already being done in Southwest states to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Coordinating lead authors Diana Liverman, from the University of Arizona, and Susanne Moser, from Susanne Moser Research and Consulting, will give their opinions on the above questions.

*For more information on the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States, including a full-color pdf of the book, how to order a hard copy, and two-page fact sheets of each chapter, see

Southwest Climate Podcast: Monsoon Mechanics and Wildfire

Monday, July 1, 2013

The monsoon is here! In the July Southwest Climate Podcast, Zack Guido, Mike Crimmins, and guest speaker J.J. Brost from the National Weather Service discuss the mechanics behind the monsoon, what we can expect from the rest of the season, and the mechanics behind fires starting at the beginning of the monsoon, such as the Yarnell fire near Prescott.

How to Create a Sustainable Southwest: Part 2

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Continuing the theme from previous blogs, this post completes the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest U.S. blog series with another perspective from one of the coordinating lead authors of the chapter on adaptation and solutions, “Climate Choices for a Sustainable Southwest.” Susanne Moser, the Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, is a leading expert on adaptation, science-policy interactions, decision support, and climate change communication. Below she gives her opinion on the same questions we’ve asked the other authors in this series.

What do you consider to be the most dreaded or threatening impact(s) to the SW region, and how might they affect the average citizen?

Moser: I am not sure it's overly useful to think about just one threat that cuts across and is pertinent to everyone in the region in terms of dread or threat. Psychologists tells us that we experience the greatest sense of dread with things that come unexpectedly, are truly terrifying, and that we don't have much if any control over. So the folks in Oklahoma City who had a massive tornado barrel through their part of town may have experienced quite a bit of dread. My sense is lack of control is probably the biggest factor.

Changing streamflow timing 2001-2010 compared to 1950-2000. Differences between 2001-2010 and 1950-2000 average date when half of the annual streamflow has discharged (center of mass) for snowmelt-dominated streams (Steward, Cayan and Dettinger, 2005). From Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest, Chapter 5. 

Now take the Southwest Climate Assessment—it makes a big point about the region as a whole becoming drier both because higher temperatures will dry out soils more, and our snowpack will melt and run off sooner (see figure, left), but also because there is a good chance the region will get less rain and snowfall overall. That is definitely a big threat for a region that’s already dry, with lots of people vying for those limited resources. But it becomes a dread only if you ignore the warnings now and don't reduce the causes of climate change, and don't prepare for longer dry periods and their impacts. So if you are a water manager with a big, deep reservoir, these projections may worry you less than if you are a relatively small rancher or farmer with only junior water rights—you simply don't have as many choices to prepare for the impacts of a drier climate. So, to you, this could be rather dreadful news.

Many Arizona farmers depend on irrigation water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), but climate change could reduce flow on the Colorado River, CAP’s water source, an impact that could trickle down to farmers as well as metropolitan water users. Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

And so we can look to every sector—water, agriculture, forestry, coastal areas, public health; to every part of the Southwest—the mountains, the deserts, rural and urbanized areas; and to different sets of decision-makers—business leaders, city planners, firefighters, county health departments, tribes, port engineers, parents, what have you—and for everyone the set of threats, and what are truly dreaded impacts will be different. Our challenge is to help people see what the threats are, and what options they have to deal with them, and if possible expand those options and help people implement them so that we reduce the amount of paralyzing dread.

What is the biggest barrier, and greatest opportunity, for dealing with these impacts?

Moser: Again, that depends on who you are, what decisions you make, in what region or sector you find yourself. In one study I was involved in in coastal California, we found governance barriers to be the biggest challenge for local officials—the constraints that arise from the fact that we have institutions and procedures set up in ways that suited the climate and situation of the 20th century, but that are not dynamic and adjusted enough to fit the rapidly changing climate of the 21st century. And of course lack of funding or constraints on how available money can be used also pose big barriers. Interestingly, though, the next biggest barrier was about attitudes, about people's mindsets. To me, that means that to deal with the changes that are coming takes good leaders, people who are willing to make things happen even though they are hard, people who understand that we're in a critically urgent situation and who have the mindset that we will rise to the challenge. It's like the Chinese proverb goes: "Anyone saying it cannot be done: get out of the way of the people doing it." In our study we found people like this again and again, and it's giving me hope that we can deal with the impacts of climate change before they get catastrophic.

What do you wish your local or regional decision-makers would focus on, in order to deal with climate change challenges?

Moser: Three things: (1) Think not just short-term, but take your public interest mandate seriously and consider the longer-term as well. (2) Think and act not just within your (limited) area of responsibility, your most immediate mandate, but always seek the points of connection to other issue areas. That way we will solve our problems more systemically, not in a piecemeal, disconnected fashion. Nothing in life or nature is disconnected from anything else, just the way we try to think and deal with them. And I dare you: look at the world—how well has that piecemeal fasion worked for us? And (3) Be courageous. Nothing worth doing in the face of a planetary emergency can be done with small-minded, small-hearted approaches. Connect with allies. Find a way to break down barriers to "enemies"—find a way to work together. Speak the truth, and follow through so you have integrity in what you do. People will gather 'round such leaders. It's the people we find inspiring that we will follow. And so, you will get the support you need to push the tough things through. Sure, some will not like it (or you). But truth and integrity are magnets. We need courageous leadership.

What do you view as the most surprising or significant NEW result from your chapter since the 2009 National Climate Assessment?

Moser: I contributed to two chapters in the SWCA. In the coastal chapter (ch.9), we have a lot better information now about what coastal professionals can do, what they are doing, and what gets in the way for them in terms of preparing more for the impacts of a rising ocean level. So, knowing that helps scientists produce more decision-relevant science, but it also helps higher-level policy-makers to develop supportive policies and mechanisms to help local folks adapt to climate change. 

In the solutions chapter (ch. 18), we looked region-wide at all the ways in which we can (and already do) reduce the causes of global warming, and prepare for those impacts that are already occurring or that will still unfold because of the momentum behind climate change. Even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow—all over the globe—the warming and changes in the climate would still continue for several decades, so we simply have no choice but to deal with the continually unfolding effects of a warming planet. In the 2009 report, we simply didn't have much information on either the mitigation or the adaptation side at all. We show how big the challenge before us really is, how we have no time to waste and postpone dealing with the problem any longer if we want to have any chance at doing our fair share in reducing these heat-trapping emissions. But we also put meeting that challenge into the context of how early settlers of the Southwest have made tremendous changes to the landscape, how we were able to think wisely and with foresight in terms of preserving the natural riches of this region. Oh, and not to forget, how our Native peoples have lived here for thousands of years and eked out a living and thriving culture in sometimes rather inhospitable environments. We give a number of examples of how people in every state of the Southwest, at every level of government and in the private sector, are leading by example. So, while we concluded it's a big challenge we have before us, we also feel it can be done. We can do it! 

What are you most interested in learning more about next?

Moser: Personally, I am most interested in some of the bigger, transformative changes that we quite likely need to tackle, both in terms of our energy and transportation systems (i.e. on the mitigation side) and in terms of adapting our ways of life, where and how we live, to the changing climate. The incremental small steps will only take us so far. 

There will likely come a time when we need to think bigger in terms of solutions. We don't know much about that yet, and I think it's not only interesting, but a moral obligation that we in the sciences get on the ball and have some answers when people come to us for answers some years from now. It's not enough for us to just study what is happening as it's happening. We should have some well-thought out solutions, developed together with stakeholders (not on our own!), that can be implemented when people wake up to the royal mess we've created for ourselves. I anticipate people will get creative and be able to come up with good solutions, but if we don't think some of these big ideas through now, we could face even more havoc and lots of very unhappy people. To me, doing science that will serve us living on this planet—or even just in our small corner of it here in the Southwest—in a peaceful, satisfying and environmentally sane manner is science worth doing.

*For more information on the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States, including a full-color pdf of the book, how to order a hard copy, and two-page fact sheets of each chapter, see