Climate change report: How to keep lights on when water is scarce

Climate change poses threats to the extraction, production, and distribution of energy across the US, according to a new climate-change report from the Obama administration. Much of the challenge for the energy industry revolves around its reliance on water for cooling and production needs. 

Craig Ruttle/AP/File
A crowd gathers as National Guard members distribute free gasoline provided by the US Department of Defense in Queens, N.Y., in 2012 after superstorm Sandy. Similar weather-related disruptions to energy supply could increase as temperatures warm, according to a new climate-change report issued Tuesday.

Energy depends on a stable and predictable water supply. Climate change throws that supply into flux, pitting demand for electricity and fuel against water needs for irrigation, drinking, and recreational purposes.

That's one conclusion from a sweeping climate change report issued Tuesday by the US government. Water scarcity or overabundance will continue to challenge the US energy industry's ability supply power and fuel across all parts of the country, according to the report. 

The National Climate Assessment – a product of four years of research from public and private experts – aims to present "actionable science" for citizens, communities, and industries to use in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change. For energy, that will come in many forms, most of which revolve around the industry's need for water in the extraction and production of energy sources. 

Critics contend that the Obama administration's push to combat climate change exaggerates the threats posed by rising temperatures and sea levels, and downplays the financial burden of switching to cleaner, less carbon-intensive fuels. But Tuesday's report presents stark evidence that increasing environmental extremes are already taking a substantial economic toll across the US. 

"Climate change is not a distant threat," John Holdren, the president's science adviser, said in a press call Tuesday. "It is already affecting every region of the country and key sectors of the economy."   

Rising average temperatures are boosting demand for air-conditioning, straining power grids in states like California. Long dry spells have forced hydroelectric dams to reduce production, and warmer lakes and rivers make it difficult to cool coal, nuclear, and other power plants. Flooding can shut down plants entirely, as was the case with Nebraska's Fort Calhoun nuclear station during 2011's record flooding of the Mississippi Basin. Rising sea levels pose a similar kind of threat to a host of power plants on the Californian coast.

Higher sea levels exacerbate extreme weather events by causing unprecedented storm surges that can disrupt critical energy infrastructure. The report cites superstorm Sandy in 2012 as "indicative of what powerful tropical storms and higher sea levels could bring on a more frequent basis." About five million customers in the New York metropolitan region lost power after a 14-foot storm surge from Sandy flooded a substation in Manhattan and elsewhere. At its peak, the storm cut electrical power to more than 8.5 million customers across the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, according to the report, and is estimated to have cost the region at least $65 billion.

Last week, the US Department of Energy announced the first regional gasoline reserve near New York Harbor and in New England, largely in response to the breakdown in power and fuel distribution in the wake of superstorm Sandy. Two reserves will store 500,000 barrels of gasoline each, to provide short-term relief in the event of future disruptions.

"If our emissions of greenhouse gases remain unabated, we will face increasingly significant damages, including rising sea levels and an increase in droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and intense storms," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement Tuesday in coordination with the release of the National Climate Assessment. "While there is no one solution to climate change, we must understand regional characteristics and differences to effectively strengthen the resiliency of our energy sector and improve our competitive position in the global economy."

Increasing the share of renewable energy could both mitigate the impacts of climate change while reducing the carbon emissions that fuel it, the report concludes. But the report paints an uncertain picture of the nation's future energy system – largely dependent on a host of financial, regulatory, and political challenges.

Last June, President Obama unveiled a Climate Action Plan that leans on executive power and federal agencies to pursue measures that promote clean energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions – a primary contributor to the rise in Earth’s average surface air temperature. The president's plan has faced significant opposition from critics in the fossil-fuel industry and elsewhere who see it as costly, ineffective, and unnecessary.

“Facing a recovering, yet fragile, economy, with families across the country struggling to make ends meet, it is concerning that the Obama Administration is busy promoting its politically driven climate change agenda, instead of addressing the real issues plaguing our nation,” Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement Tuesday

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