IEEE Power & Energy Society
IEEE

Guest Editorial

Expansion of Power

Facing Environmental and Social Challenges

Power system development and expansion are facing new challenges. These challenges are not technical, economic, nor financial in nature but are environmental and social. In the 1930s, the social challenges in electricity development were those of failing to gear to the speed of technological change, quite different from the social turmoil around the building of power lines or nuclear plants that we face today. The environmental outlooks in the 1930s were very basic, just perceiving a growing dirty contamination of industrial and urban development, which led to such events as the world’s worst air pollution disaster in London on December 1952 and no comparison to environmental conscience today.

The Challenges

Constructing a power plant or a transmission line today implies more sustainability challenges than engineering ones. The engineering profession increasingly needs the support of other areas of knowledge and other professions to cope with those challenges. With this in mind, we made a daring bet and invited authors to contribute and illuminate into those two dimensions of power expansion, an environmental one, closely related to climate change, and a social one, related to community participation in infrastructure development.

Climate change and sustainable development have become the essential challenges of the 21st century, with extraordinary implications for energy, economic competitiveness, water, and food security. There are extreme controversies worldwide on how to confront those challenges, on who will pay to adapt modern society to reduce global warming, and on how to rapidly develop and deploy clean energy technology, among many divergences, that affect the actions of engineers.

While science increasingly points to rising dangers from human-produced greenhouse gases, created primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, there are some that question the human responsibility. The shocking impact of severe droughts, violent fires, and more powerful storms, like Superstorm Sandy that hit the eastern coast of the United States in 2012, worry people worldwide. Thus, the world is concerned and is taking actions to confront the dangers. In fact, since 1992, there has been an ongoing global process of international climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The main objective of this international treaty is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. It is under this convention that the Kyoto Protocol (1997) was developed, the only legally binding instrument for reducing greenhouse gases, which requires developed countries to reduce their emissions.

The energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emission represents the bulk of global greenhouse gas emission. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2012, the generation of electricity and heat was responsible for 41% (12 GtCO2) of world CO2 emissions, while transportation contributed 22%. The emissions of the global power sector have also grown faster than any other sector, at an annual rate of approximately 5.6%, while the fuel mix has remained unaffected. Thus, to cope with the main goal of the climate change treaty, decarbonizing the power sector is a must for the near future.

In December 2011, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC decided to open a new negotiation process to adopt, in 2015, a legal agreement, applicable to all countries, that shall enter into force starting in 2020. In December 2012, as a result of COP 18 held in Doha, Qatar, the parties reaffirmed their will to reach an agreement in 2015.

Considering all the international efforts and the new individual policies in several countries, the energy system still remains unsustainable. The CO2 emissions related to energy are at their highest record (30 GtCO2), while nearly 1.3 billion people still do not have access to electricity, and fossil fuel subsidies are still six times more than subsidies to renewables. The reality is discouraging.

The only way to prevent a potentially irreversible climate change is to strengthen the multilateral regime with the cooperation of all countries in an effective reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. This process shall be conducted by a group of world leaders guided by the U.N. Secretary-General. This appears to be the only way to mobilize the indispensable political determination to adopt a strong binding instrument on climate change by 2015.

Policy makers will have to think ahead; if not, climate policy will lag behind climate change. Although it will not be easy, we must resolve these economic, environmental, and energy challenges. Much technology development and transfer, transparency of action and support, capacity building, and additional investments will be needed. In the meantime, policy makers need to start with adaptation to climate change and address the impact of climate change on the security of the energy sector.

When selecting the measures, energy efficiency remains the key policy measure with an abatement potential of 50% of CO2 world emissions by 2035. Renewables account for 21% of CO2 emissions savings by 2035, and carbon capture and storage rise as the key technology for CO2 abatement with an abatement potential of 19% by 2035. Developing a low carbon world will need market-based instruments. In 2012 there were significant developments in emissions trading systems (ETSs), with the Australian ETS starting in July 2012 and the Quebec and California ETSs in January 2013.

Closely related to the environmental challenges are the social ones, in a world where use of land is being requested by conflicting needs. Increasing population and new housing, industrial growth, transport networks, agricultural and forestry development, wildlife and ecosystem protection, tourism and recreation infrastructure, plus energy requirements are just a few of the conflicting needs that superimpose in the use of land. Siting needed electricity infrastructure has never been easy, the not-in-my-backyard syndrome (NIMBY) has accompanied power development for years. However, stakeholders are becoming more empowered and pursuing a more active role in decisions about land use, and willing communities are increasingly more difficult to find.

The eventual development of distributed generation across neighborhoods will condition new conflicts with people. Governments, public agencies, electric utilities, investors, planners, and engineers in general are forced to face new conditions in the power infrastructure expansion, where traditional processes in relating with communities and the general public are not useful any more. And this is not only the case for the developed world; communities are also questioning the siting of power facilities in developing and even poor countries, particularly opposing major hydro plants. Climate change has also become a concern raised by social and environmental groups in opposing power infrastructure, scaling conflicts to become international controversies.

With all these new challenges in mind, we invited authors to develop the central themes for this issue, three articles covering the environmental/climate change dimension and two the social/community dimension of electric power system infrastructure development.

In This Issue

The first article, by authors Roberto Schaeffer, Alexandre Szklo, André Frossard Pereira de Lucena, Rafael Soria, and Mauro Chávez-Rodriguez of the Energy Planning Program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, analyzes the impacts of climate change on hydropower production with a focus on Amazonian regions. Given the close dependence of renewable energy based systems on climate conditions, global climate change can add uncertainty to renewable energy supply. Since hydroelectricity depends directly on the water flow through the turbines, a decrease in runoff diminishes hydropower production. However, climatic impact studies are scenario analyses and not forecasts. Therefore, the planning and operation of energy systems will have to adapt to a more undefined setting. This adaptation to climate change must consider not only the economic and natural resources but also access to information. The authors reflect that a critical measure is to improve present meteorological databases to reduce uncertainty in forecast modeling, which is particularly critical in Amazonian regions. Linkages between water and energy security are evident, and the authors conclude that energy system integration and diversification are a key aspect of adaptation.

The second article is by Jayant A. Sathaye, Larry L. Dale, Peter H. Larsen, Gary A. Fitts, Kevin Koy, Sarah M. Lewis, and André Frossard Pereira de Lucena, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They explore three risks of climate change on the energy infrastructure of California. The first is high temperature impacts on power plant capacity, electricity generation, and substation capacity. The second is the increased incidence of wildfire impacts near transmission lines, and the third is the sea level rise and storm surge upon power plants, substations, and natural gas facilities. Several studies have shown that climate change is likely to increase the size and frequency of wildfires in California. In addition, the sea level along California’s coast has risen about 17–20 cm over the past century. The added effect of these risks would result in new investment in generation, transmission, and distribution.

Engineers and scientists worldwide are developing new breakthrough technologies of different sorts to mitigate climate change and adapt to its consequences. These efforts include developing large-scale renewable energy power generation and storage, increasing energy efficiency in different industrial processes, and building engineering safety guarantee technologies to protect cities against extreme weather events, among many. The third article, by authors Andrew Maxson and David Thimsen of the Electric Power Research Institute, searches for technical ways to maintain open the coal-fired power generation alternative, a major CO2 emitter, but which currently supplies nearly half the electricity consumed worldwide. They describe the numerous technical options available and under development to improve coal power plant efficiency, reduce conventional emissions to near-zero levels, and capture CO2 for geological storage. However, they caution that many of the technologies are not yet at the level of developmental maturity required for affordable widespread deployment, and time is needed to test and validate new technologies.

The fourth article, by authors Todd Schenk and Leah C. Stokes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explores some of the reasons why individuals and communities oppose new energy infrastructure, including renewable energy. The authors discuss the traditional approach to dealing with opposition and the reasons why this approach doesn’t lead to optimal outcomes. They propose three ways in which decision making can be done differently: a consensus-building approach, public workshops, and deliberative opinion polling. All three new pathways offer democratic processes that engage stakeholders around the issues and take their interests into account. However, the authors conclude that improved decision making must be complemented by other efforts to bring communities on board with energy infrastructure, such as site selection.

The fifth article, by authors Pablo Varas, Manuel Tironi, Hugh Rudnick, and Nicolás Rodríguez of the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile, describes the growing social challenges of large-scale hydroelectric development in Latin America. Large projects formulated in recent years have had various difficulties, with many common elements and new cultural, social, and political restrictions. By 2035, electricity demand would nearly double the current demand in the region. The challenge is how to respond to this and also reduce CO2 emissions. Hydroelectric potential in the region is on the order of 3,500 TWh, but all related projects are facing a number of difficulties that are essentially social. The authors analyze sources of conflict in four South American cases of large-scale hydroelectric projects. The challenges encountered are increased citizen participation, transforming community demands, new forms of participation and citizen conflict, indigenous people, internationalization, and judicialization of project development.

In Conclusion

Finally, the “In My View” column has a contribution from Nicole Wilke, head of the International Climate Policy Division at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany. She addresses why climate change has moved somewhat out of the political focus, not just of the general public but also of heads of state and government, and what can be done to counter this.

We thank the authors for the time and dedication and articles provided and IEEE Power & Energy Magazine for the opportunity to reflect on and analyze such relevant matters. Special acknowledgments to Editor in Chief Mel Olken for his continued support.

In This Issue

Feature Articles

Departments & Columns

Upcoming Issue Themes

  • January/February 2018
    Societal Views of the Value of Electricity
  • March/April 2018
    Controlling the Unpredictable Grid