Where Climate and Energy Intersect: The Flipside

Electrical generation may be changing the climate but the reverse is also true

Craig Miller

As temperatures rise, the power grid stands to become less efficient. Transmission lines could lose 7-8% of their peak carrying capacity by 2100.

Planners, policymakers and scientists are starting to look more closely at the crossroads of climate change and energy production in California.

For years the focus has been on how energy production affects the climate through emissions of greenhouse gases. Now the converse has come center stage: What happens to energy production in a changing climate? Some heavy-hitters in California climate and energy circles gathered at the California Energy Commission this week, to weigh the question. Some highlights:

Larry Dale of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said we’re likely to see a six-percent falloff in efficiency of thermal power plants (any that use heat to produce power) by 2100, and that utilities may need to add substantial generating capacity to stay even. He told the gathering that power plants are rated for capacity assuming an ambient temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and they lose efficiency for every degree warmer that it gets.

When you add up all the little efficiency losses in plants and transmission lines from warmer temperatures, Dale figures that California might have to add as much as 40% to its current power-generating capacity to offset that. Of course, 2100 is still a long way off and it does seem like aggressive use of distributed generation (making energy where it’s used) and advances in electricity storage technology could dramatically change the picture. Dale also surveyed facilities at risk from sea-level rise and says he found 25 power plants and 90 substations around the state “vulnerable.”

David Pierce of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography gave a fascinating presentation about using spring cycles of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation to forecast the amount of extra heating and air conditioning that utilities are likely to shoulder. Pierce also pointed out that while climate models don’t necessarily show a decline in total precipitation for California in future decades, that it’s reasonable to expect more precip during the winter and less than we’ve become accustomed to in the “shoulder seasons.” Pierce also said that the “damaging heat waves” that often loom large in climate discussions are most likely to start showing up in the 2020-2040 time frame.

Paul Bunje of UCLA mentioned that leaking municipal infrastructure can account for up to a quarter of total water loss in the system.

UC Berkeley’s Dan Kammen is back from his yearlong gig as the World Bank’s clean energy “czar” and working on modeling California’s future energy mix for the most emissions reductions at the least cost. Kammen says we should “use (natural) gas, not to block renewables, but to enable them.”

His comments come about a week after the California Public Utilities Commission deferred approval of new natural gas-fired plants, finding that “additional (gas) generation is not needed by 2020,” or beyond, for that matter. But the newest generation of fast-ramping gas plants can play a vital role in “load-balancing,” rounding out electrical supply when wind and solar farms are not producing. Thibault Worth reviews some of the arguments around that in his radio story for The California Report.

Of course, an obvious question is, what becomes of hydro-electric power, which currently makes up about 15% of the state’s supply? A smaller snowpack would mean less water to spin the turbines. Kammen says the net result is extremely tricky to predict but we’ll be tackling that in a forthcoming series on the relationship between water & power in California.