Tying utility risks to regional variation in climate impacts

Mar 9, 2021
4 MIN. READ
By understanding the potential impact of changing climate-related events in their region, utilities can better protect infrastructure, improve system resilience, and serve their communities.
Climate-related threats cut across four broad categories—sea-level rise and flooding, rising temperatures, extreme storms, and wildfires—but the severity and prevalence of threats varies by location. Each individual utility’s vulnerability to these threats will depend on the proximity of assets to hazard areas, the sensitivity of the specific asset to the hazard, and their existing risk mitigations or adaptive capacity. In this article, pulled from our in-depth utility resilience report, we summarize the four categories of threats and what they could mean for utilities.

Sea level rise and flooding

It stands to reason that utilities in coastal areas are most at risk from rising sea levels, but a more accurate assessment requires drilling down to a location-specific analysis.

An influential 2014 study by the Department of Energy on the effect of sea-level rise on energy infrastructure in four major metropolitan areas found that as many as 160 individual energy assets would come under threat by the end of the century.

But flooding isn’t just a coastal issue. For example, in California, climate models predict an increase in the frequency of heavy downpours through atmospheric river events. And even though they are far from sea coasts, even Midwestern states are projected to see an increase in flooding, primarily due to a rise in humidity and extreme or heavy precipitation, as well as long-term drought conditions in the summer months.

In the Northeast, high-tide flooding has increased by a factor of 10 over the last 50 years, and experts fear more intense precipitation could lead to more inland flooding.
 
These models suggest that sea-level rise and flooding will impact nearly every part of the country but will affect any given utility differently depending on the exact location of their assets, how sensitive the equipment is to the flooding, and the extent of risk management in place. 
 
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Sea-level rise and flooding

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Rising temperatures

A warming planet means an increase in the frequency, severity, and length of heat waves in many areas, which will ultimately degrade the performance of certain utility assets.

For example, Con Edison’s (Con Ed) Climate Change Vulnerability Study notes that applying the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 climate scenario for 2050 to its 2018 infrastructure and absent any interim adaptation efforts, a significant number of networks would be targeted for remediation based on the company’s standard of reliability. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS), the additional capacity required to make up the performance gap created by rising temperatures will cost approximately $180 billion nationally by the end of the century.

The Northeast is already susceptible to rising sea levels, and according to climate projections in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the region will be 3.6F warmer, on average, as early as 2035. In the Midwest, the city of Chicago is expected to see 100F daily temperatures become commonplace as early as 2070. The Southwest is already seeing an increase of 1.6F compared to the early 1900s, and temperatures are expected to increase another 8.6F by 2100.

Wildfires

The general trend of increasing wildfire risk in the United States offers a concerning preview of a dangerous future. Rising temperatures and longer dry seasons put densely forested regions throughout the country at greater risk of wildfires.

That danger became abundantly clear last year during an out-of-control wildfire season in the state of California, during which time a state commission noted that existing models of capital to fund utility wildfire risk prevention are insufficient. As credit ratings deteriorate across the state, utility borrowing costs have increased, making funds for essential improvements more difficult to obtain.

In response, utilities along the West Coast are advancing their ability to assess the risk in real time using technologies such as grid intelligence, cameras, and weather forecasting—while also imposing utility shutdowns during periods of higher risk. These planned power outages, however, can have a devastating effect on local populations.

This puts utilities on the West Coast in the unique position of looking for solutions, such as asset hardening, microgrids, and sectionalizing switches on circuits, to reduce fire risk while keeping circuits energized.

Extreme storms

As with wildfires, extreme storms are unfortunately becoming more common, and affecting wide swaths of the country. In the past decade, the United States experienced 119 billion-dollar disasters, compared with 59 in the 2000s and 52 in the 1990s.

Extreme weather events

The Southeast, where the vast majority of power distribution infrastructure remains overhead, is particularly vulnerable to extreme storms that can damage power lines. Even here, however, geography and asset specifics play a role. Areas with older, radial distribution systems and locations with sparse tree coverage may be less vulnerable to storms than newer, looped systems in heavily forested regions.

Where we go from here

Climate change poses a range of threats to utility assets and infrastructure, and while an effort to strengthen the country’s resilience to extreme weather events is underway, solutions and investments need to be tailored to individual circumstances.

Developing an in-depth, customized, data-backed analysis that considers the unique circumstances of each asset is a necessary first step in addressing vulnerabilities and closing the investment gap. A resilience plan that factors in the unique needs of each asset can significantly reduce long-term damage to utilities, cut long-term costs, and improve overall resilience against the threat of climate change.

To learn more about how to identify and prepare your utility for increasing climate risks, download our resilient power report.

Meet the authors
  1. Judsen Bruzgul, Senior Director, Climate Adaptation and Resilience

    Judsen helps clients assess vulnerabilities and manage risks from changing climate and extreme weather to infrastructure and natural resources in the United States and abroad. View bio

  2. Neil Weisenfeld, Senior Energy Resilience Expert

    Neil is an expert in developing energy systems’ resilience to better serve communities, with over 35 years of industry experience.  View bio