The energy sector – well known as a key driver of global warming – will also have to deal with the effects of the climate change it has helped to create, according to a federal report released Tuesday.
The "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program laid out changes already underway in the United States. Those include rising sea levels and ocean temperatures, more severe weather patterns, thawing glaciers and permafrost, lengthening of ice-free seasons in oceans and freshwater bodies, and changes to snowpack patterns and river flow that could lead to water shortages in the future.
Beyond the obvious threats of rising sea levels to the country's coastal regions, those changes are likely to hurt the nation's agriculture sector, as well as lead to potential human health problems, the report found.
But a warming planet also means big changes for energy production – not least the mounting pressure to reduce the carbon emissions from the nation's coal-fired power plants, oil-fueled transportation sector and other parts of an industry that make up a whopping 87 percent of the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions, the report said (see Come Get 'Em: Gov't Plans to Give Freebies Under Cap-and-Trade).
First, rising temperatures mean that heating energy will be in less demand and cooling energy – read, air conditioning – will be in greater demand. That in turn will lead to "significant increases in electricity use and peak demand in most regions," the report found.
That's bad news for utilities in hot parts of the country that see up to half of their peak energy demand come from air conditioning. It could also spur even greater emphasis by utilities on so-called demand response programs that seek to curb power use during those peak demand times.
But it could be a boost to companies that enable those programs, like EnerNoc, Comverge and CPower, as well as the plethora of companies developing technologies to curb peak energy use for homes, businesses and even the agricultural sector (see Top Ten Smart Grid: Demand Response and M2M Brings Demand Response to Farmers).
More extreme weather also presents challenges to keeping the nation's electricity grid up and running, the report found. A chart from the report shows that the number of grid incidents from weather has increased tenfold from 1992 to 2008, causing about two-thirds of the overall grid problems in recent years, up from one-fifth in the early '90s.
That's likely going to add pressure to efforts to upgrade the grid, both in basic infrastructure and in the forms of two-way digital communications and controls generally known as "smart grid" (see Green Light post).
Hotter temperatures and limited water supplies will also present a "tremendous challenge for the energy industry in the United States," Tom Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, said Tuesday during a press conference in Washington, D.C.
"The siting of power plants is already being considered in the context of water scarcity in parts of this country," he said. The report lists many Western and Southern states as facing such constraints by 2025, mainly for coal and gas-fired power plants that need water for cooling.
But it could also be a factor for solar-thermal power plants, which use the sun's heat to make steam to spin turbines. Many of these plants are planned for the American Southwest, where water is scarce, leading to questions over which type of solar-thermal technologies may be able to use alternative cooling sources (see Solar-Thermal: Which Technology is Best?).