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Clean power vs. resilient power: why not both?

Earlier this week, the US EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan, its groundbreaking proposed rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil-fueled power plants. It establishes unique emissions goals for each state based on their current energy mixes and provides states with flexibility in determining how they’ll meet these goals. States will undoubtedly weigh multiple considerations while designing plans to meet their goals, such as costs, technical feasibility, and emissions reduction potential. Yet there’s another critical factor that should also be central to states’ implementation strategies – ensuring the reliability of our energy system in the face of climate change.

This reliability can be compromised by a host of factors, including an aging infrastructure, extreme weather events, and excessive peak demand. With some components dating back to the 1880s (à la Gangs of New York), our current energy system is vulnerable to the weaknesses of old age and, in most cases, not built to withstand future climate trends. In its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s energy infrastructure a dismal grade of D+. The necessary upgrades will require investments of hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two decades. Power outages are not cheap either: even a momentary interruption can cost industrial consumers over $2,000. Severe weather-related outages (the #1 cause of outages in the US) cost the economy, on average, $18 to $33 billion a year from 2003-2012. Reliability is a central tenet of energy supply, but it’s no easy task.  

Climate change will only exacerbate these factors and increase the vulnerability of the aging infrastructure along its energy supply chain. It will bring more water scarcity, higher water and air temperatures, rising sea levels, and a potential increase in the frequency and severity of certain types of weather events. For example, natural gas-fired power plants are a crucial electricity source in the US. More than a third of the nation’s gas supply is from the Gulf Coast, a region that is regularly in the direct path of tropical storms and hurricanes. Water scarcity and rising water temperatures present several other challenges for energy production. In 2012, the Millstone Nuclear Power Station was forced to shut down a reactor because the water in the Long Island Sound was too warm to cool it, resulting in losses totaled upwards of several million dollars. And rising air temperatures can reduce power plant efficiency while simultaneously increasing demand, which can be a recipe for failure.

Fortunately, many technologies that reduce the carbon intensity of states’ energy supplies can bolster reliability by increasing the system’s resilience to these and other climate impacts. (Resilience refers to “the ability to recover quickly from damage to facilities’ components or to any of the external systems on which they depend.”)

Distributed (or on-site) power provides distinct advantages since it continues operating even if the main grid goes down. Two success stories from Hurricane Sandy help illustrate its benefits in the midst of a disaster that caused 8 million customers to lose power. Bloom Energy, which uses fuel cells to power its distributed generators, was one of the few uninterrupted electricity providers in all of Delaware throughout the storm. Onsite combined heat and power (CHP) allowed several hospitals and schools to keep the lights on during the extensive outages. This energy efficiency technology ended up saving lives.

Wind and solar also provide resilience benefits. In addition to often serving as distributed sources, they are modular, composed of many individual wind turbines or solar arrays. Therefore, if a single unit fails due to an extreme weather event, it won’t significantly affect the overall stability of the energy supply. These renewables can also decrease the grid’s dependence on any single electricity source since they increase grid diversity. Wind and photovoltaic solar projects have another advantage. Unlike coal, natural gas, and nuclear-powered facilities, they don’t rely on water, so they don’t need to be near bodies of water, which can flood from heavy rains, storms, and sea level rise. Natural gas, nuclear, and, to a lesser extent, coal may continue to be significant providers of baseload power as we transition to a cleaner energy economy; resilience efforts must therefore address them as well.

Of course, the best way to protect our energy infrastructure from the worst impacts of climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and globally. The EPA’s proposed rule is a significant and timely step towards this goal given the 15-year window for action we have to avoid the most catastrophic climate impacts. It also provides much needed leadership globally. The rule’s flexibility allows each state to consider climate resilience alongside cost, technical feasibility, emission reduction potential, and other criteria as they design plans to meet their emissions goals. It may even help close our current energy infrastructure investment gap. States that are ahead of the curve, such as California, have already shown that reducing emissions is cost-effective and achievable.

We should seize the opportunity that the Clean Power Plan presents to re-think the future of our nation’s energy supply. It will put us on the right path to provide clean, affordable, and reliable energy in a warming world.

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