Why You Can’t Talk About Fixing The Electric Grid Without Talking About Climate Change

Warming-charged Superstorm Sandy affected electric grid security throughout Tri-State area.

This morning, CAP Senior Fellow Daniel J. Weiss testified before the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce about electric grid reliability. He made a strong case for confronting the elephant in the room –the impact climate change has on the reliability and security of the electric grid. The other elephant in the room is the effect that burning fossil fuels for electricity has on our climate.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on “American Energy Security and Innovation: Grid Reliability Challenges in a Shifting Energy-Resource Landscape.”

Discussing electricity security and innovation while ignoring climate change is like discussing personal health while ignoring cigarette smoking, diet, and exercise. Any examination of this shifting landscape must acknowledge that our electricity-generation systems produce much of the carbon pollution responsible for climate change and that the effects of climate change impair electricity reliability. Since coal-fired power plants emit one-third of the climate pollution in the United States, it is irresponsible to assess changes in our electricity system while ignoring climate pollution and its impacts.

Americans understand that extreme weather is related to man-made climate change that costs our economy billions of dollars annually. A recent poll from Yale University and George Mason University found that many Americans believe that global warming caused recent extreme weather and climatic events to be “more severe.”

Extreme weather events — including storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires — threaten electricity reliability. The Congressional Research Service concluded that, “[P]ower delivery systems are most vulnerable to storms and extreme weather events.”

These events also threaten American lives and the economy. The most severe and extreme weather events caused 1,107 deaths and $188 billion in damages in 2011 and 2012.

A Center for American Progress analysis found that federal natural disaster-relief and recovery spending cost taxpayers $136 billion in the fiscal years from 2011 to 2013, or $400 per household annually. And the National Climate Assessment draft warns us that we can expect more extreme and severe weather, including droughts and rainstorms. The severe 2012 drought, for example, interfered with electricity generation in California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York by shrinking the amount of cooling water available for power plants. It also disrupted oil and natural gas production.

Superstorm Sandy and other severe storms disrupted electricity transmission and distribution by downing power lines and damaging substations. The National Climate Assessment draft predicts that future climate-change-related events will interfere with electricity transmission.

We urge the subcommittee to support policies to achieve a more secure, reliable electricity system by accomplishing the following three goals:

1. The subcommittee should support policies that slow climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the largest uncontrolled source of emissions.

Failing that, EPA must at least comply with the Supreme Court by setting such standards under the Clean Air Act.

Americans favor such pollution reductions. The poll from Yale University and George Mason University found that voters support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. And American Electric Power, Xcel, and Entergy all testified before this subcommittee earlier this year in favor of legislation to address climate change.

Finally, there is no evidence that pollution standards for power plants impair reliability. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and the Congressional Research Service all found that the Mercury Air Toxics Standard has no impact on reliability. A Department of Energy and Congressional Research Service analysis found that the biggest impediment to reliability is weather.

2. Provide financial incentives for innovative energy efficiency and no- or low-carbon electricity technologies, which would reduce reliance on dirty fossil fuels responsible for climate change.

Federal investments in emerging clean energy technologies should continue. Historically, fossil fuels have received vastly more federal support than renewable technologies.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, found that over the past 60 years, 70 percent of federal energy spending went to fossil fuels, while only 10 percent was for renewables.

3. The subcommittee should act to enhance the resilience of the electricity infrastructure to extreme storms, drought, sea level rise, and other impacts of climate change.

Investments in resiliency to extreme weather save money. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that “a dollar spent on [pre-disaster] mitigation saves society an average of $4” in lower damages.

Yet even as extreme weather increases, the federal government is investing less in community resilience.

Rep. Lois Capps and 39 of her colleagues urged the federal government to undertake a plan that:

  • Identifies federal programs that already provide funding for resilience efforts
  • Estimates the financial support necessary to helps communities prepare for the anticipated impacts of increased climate-related extreme weather
  • Creates a dependable revenue stream to provide additional resources for local pre-disaster mitigation planning

In addition, the Congressional Research Service recommends more investments in smart-grid and transmission repairs to improve reliability.

The growing harm from climate change necessitates prompt transition from dirty to cleaner electricity generation. This is underway here and overseas. Iowa, for example, generates 20 percent of its electricity from wind. And six years after a devastating tornado, Greensburg, Kansas, is “100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent of the time.”

Looking abroad, Portugal produced 70 percent of energy with renewables in the first quarter of 2013. And Germany generated 26 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in the first half of 2012.

Congress must adopt policies that speed this transition across the nation, while helping our electricity system become more resilient to damages from climate-related storms, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather.

10 Responses to Why You Can’t Talk About Fixing The Electric Grid Without Talking About Climate Change

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    What we don’t discuss about grid reliability:

    1. Our policies encourage renewable energy generation willy-nilly. Our policies don’t encourage 24/7 coverage of supply with demand. Nobody’s working on this. It says something about the climate change movement whenever nobody’s working on something important. It says, “We’re vulnerable. We promise that we’ll act dumb. Please take full advantage of us here.”

    2. Nuclear power is absolutely horrid at reliability. If there’s a blackout spreading across the East Coast, the nuclear power plants are the first to trip offline and pull every other power source with them. If you think n-power is reliable, go try and live in Tokyo this July! Nuclear power should always be priced as “run of the river” power.

    3. Stored power options are opening up for states that want to store wind/solar power. The old option is called pumped hydro. A variant of pumped hydro is allowing water to build up behind a dam when the wind is blowing, and releasing a doubled stream down through turbines when the wind isn’t blowing. The new option is the giant fuel cell, the cracking of water into Hydrogen and Oxygen during the daytime and storing the Hydrogen in a big tank.

  2. catman306 says:

    Parked, electric powered vehicles can be designed to put power back into the grid when the demand is greatest. The batteries become a stored power option.

  3. Tami Kennedy says:

    A few deaf ears in that crowd.

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Only if you’re quite sure that the driver doesn’t need a full charge in the next 12 hours or so. A few electrics in long-term storage at the airport might qualify. However, the average car is needed daily, so the supply of electrics for this purpose is relatively tiny.

  5. Ed Leaver says:

    1. Everyone working to replace PTC and FIT with CT is “working on this.” As are everyone working on grid optimization e.g. Least cost renewable electricity scenarios in the Australian National Electricity Market, Hidden Costs of Energy, Renewables need much less reserve capacity than supposed. Disagree with any or all; the problem is being addressed.
    2. Why should nukes trip offline sooner than anyone else — do they have faster, more reliable drop-off circuitry? At capacity factor over 90%, overall nuclear reliability is best of all dispatchable resources save hydro if you have the water. Fukushima disaster notwithstanding. Japan can restart its remaining nuclear whenever it so chose. So far they have chosen to accept the cost of not so doing. (No, I don’t envy their choices.)
    3. Have you priced any of these stored-power options? Relative to the plummeting near-term cost of NG plant?

  6. Joan Savage says:

    “One of the big issues for utilities is aging infrastructure, according to Samuel Brothwell, a Bloomberg Industries utility analyst. “A lot of the electrical distribution infrastructure looks very similar to what you saw in the early part of the 20th century.”
    “We’ve not come up with the cellphone equivalent.”

    Many utilities, he said, are looking to beef up their surveillance of the electrical grid.

    “You can’t stop storms but you can respond more quickly if you know where the trouble spots are.”

    Obama Confers With Utilities CEOs on Storm Preparedness

  7. Ed Leaver says:

    On topic of storage costs, see World Bank Turns to Hydropower. One presumes designers will consider future wind&solar deployments as they wire these things up.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    With the number of cars is the USA, many households will have more than one. If they ever get to be mostly electric, a goodly percentage of US households will have a spare, so long as the trend to mass immiseration is turned around.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    The Bangladesh garment factory collapse is attributed to vibration from four massive rooftop generators that damaged an eight-storey structure not originally designed to handle four additional floors with installed heavy equipment.

    Rooftop generators. Let’s assume they used fossil fuel. The story of the Rana Plaza factory building be very different with grid-sourced electricity.

  10. Ed Leaver says:

    And/or adherence to building codes. (Yeah, I know…) Your point is well made. If they were able to provide reliable grid power, they’d probably be able to enforce reliable building codes as well. Over 1000 dead…

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Thanks to Mari Hernandez, Research Associate, and Jackie Weidman, Special Assistant, on the Energy Policy team of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.