A guest post by Nathan Lott, energy policy expert.
The United States’ electrical grid is at risk from climatic disruptions. As scientists have predicted, the U.S. is now experiencing more intense droughts and wildfires, higher seas and stronger storms stemming from climate change. Recently released reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment show clear consensus that the world we now live in is palpably different because of humanity’s effect on the atmosphere. Having significantly altered the Earth’s surface with roads, cities, farms, and dams, we have altered the atmospheric and oceanic chemistry and these alterations are having a negative impact on our grid security.
As these changes have already started affecting Earth and its inhabitants, policymakers have yet to determine how to adapt the electricity system. In part I of this series, we examined the impacts of climate change on the grid. Part II will consider adaptation needs and what will be required of regulators, utilities and ratepayers.
If the primary impacts of climate change on the grid are likely to be stronger storms and hotter summers, then the first logical response is to ready our transmission and distribution network. This may entail relocating vulnerable infrastructure away from the coast. It can also be as simple as routine line maintenance to avoid outages. In some communities, undergrounding distribution lines may be a cost-effective option. Tools such as special tax districts could allow neighborhoods that benefit—in terms of aesthetics and property values as well as reliability—to shoulder a proportionate share of the cost. Finally, the integration of information technology across the system, commonly known as smart grid, will enable faster storm response and rerouting of power in real time (smart grid also has non-disaster benefits).
Often referred to as low-hanging fruit in the context of grid reliability, peak shaving and even personal finance, energy efficiency is the first logical response to climate change. It just makes economic sense to use energy as efficiently as practical. The likelihood of increased electricity costs—necessitated by the construction of renewable energy facilities, storm repairs and compliance with carbon regulation—makes efficiency even more important.
Nevertheless, consumers and businesses often find it hard to make the up-front investments of time and money needed to improve efficiency. Sometimes they make costly visible investments in new windows or solar panels when less costly, less visible improvements such as insulation and duct-sealing would yield better return on investment. Home energy audits and third party guidance can help steer Louisianians in the right direction. The state could scale up it’s Home Energy Loan Program and resuscitate the now defunct Home Energy Rebate Option.
Many utility funded energy efficiency programs are still in their infancy, but a 2013 study by researchers at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory found they could double their spending by 2025. The premise behind these ratepayer funded programs is that by reducing aggregate load, particularly at peak times, a utility can avoid costly new generation and merchant power purchases; the savings accrue to all ratepayers. New Orleans residents can begin by taking advantage of Entergy’s Energy Smart program. Other Louisianians will soon be joining New Orleans since regulators have authorized similar programs statewide.
Demand-Side Management Technologically driven energy efficiency (like LED lightbulbs) is sometimes confused with behavior driven energy conservation (like switching off the lights when you leave a room). It is also periodically conflated with demand-side management, which is actually intended to shave peak demand and level the load traveling our grid over the course of the day. DSM, as it is sometimes called, is important tactic in reducing line loss at peak times to make a hotter grid more stable. It may also play a role in the adoption of renewable technologies.
If industrial scale wind farms in neighboring Texas generate significant electricity at night, when household use is lowest, that clean energy could go undervalued or even unused. A good demand management program would incentivize electric vehicle charging at those times–perhaps even allowing a utility to remotely start and stop charging, just as some currently do with the air conditioning units of participating customers.
In our examination of the effects of climate change on the electricity system, we noted that carbon regulation coupled with low gas prices is driving a massive shift to natural gas in the power sector. While an improvement over coal (gas plants use less water and emit less CO2 per kilowatt), this is insufficient to prevent further climate disruption. It also places ratepayers in the precarious situation of being highly dependent on the price of a single commodity. Should gas prices spike, as they might if the US begins large scale LNG exporting, ratepayers will see their bills shoot up. Renewable electricity is the most viable way to hedge against over-reliance on natural gas.
Renewables have numerous additional benefits, of course. Wind, solar and hydropower emit no climate pollution and are immune to fuel costs and carbon regulations. Distributed solar systems provide homeowners with lower power bills over time and may even keep the fridge running after a storm. Louisiana’s solar tax credit and personal property tax exemption make these installations more attractive.
Biomass facilities are subject to fuel costs and air quality regulations, however, sustainably sourced woody biomass can provide a market for forest products in the Southeast. This may have positive land-use implications. Co-firing off-grid boilers with switchgrass can provide sustainability and cost savings for institutions like hospitals, prisons and schools.
Research Developing and commercializing cutting edge technology is unquestionably a key to building a climate-ready electricity system. Former secretary of energy and Nobel laureate Stephen Chu recently told The Atlantic that better batteries will jump-start (pardon the pun) a renewable energy revolution. We all know batteries are integral to smartphones and electric cars, but they could significantly improve the performance of renewable energy systems at all scales. Chu even suggests they could one day replace generators during power outages.
Chu now conducts research at Stanford. Louisiana universities should also pursue clean tech research, and there is even a role for private sector utilities, as exhibited by Department of Energy clean energy research grants. One of the upsides of the oil and gas industry’s long history in Louisiana is a robust knowledge base in engineering and energy. The time is now to apply that knowledge to climate readiness and resiliency.
Adapting our electricity system to a warming world requires significant investments, and much of the cost will be borne by ratepayers. Like saving for retirement, the sooner you start the better. Regulators need to adopt a new mindset that prioritizes life-cycle costs and weighs vulnerability to future climatic events. They need to encourage utilities to build adaptation into projects and help customers keep their bills from rising—even as per kilowatt prices go up—by providing user-friendly energy efficiency programs.
Nathan Lott lives in New Orleans with his wife and two children. Before relocating to Louisiana, he spent seven years as Executive Director of the Virginia Conservation Network. During that time, he advocated successfully for pro-consumer, pro-clean energy policies, including a landmark law to allow utilities rate of return on energy efficiency investments. Nathan served on a renewable energy task force convened by the mayor of Virginia Beach and on the steering committee for the Chesapeake Bay region’s Choose Clean Water coalition. He began his working life as editor for a Birmingham-based publisher of outdoor and travel guides. Currently enrolled in graduate studies at Tulane University, he enjoys exploring New Orleans architecture and culture as all as the surrounding bayous and trails.