IEEE Power & Energy Society

Guest Editorial

Climate Changes

How the Power Infrastructure needs to Adapt

Since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the electrical infrastructure of the U.S. Northeast in 2012, there has been heightened awareness in the press, public understanding, and political consciousness of the risks that
severe weather and other extreme hazards present to our infrastructures.

There is a general perception, backed up by various statistics and evidence, that severe weather events are occurring with greater frequency than in the past. And for a variety of reasons (such as aging assets in some cases; certainly more dependence upon interlinked infrastructures for electricity, gas, communications, emergency services, and health care; increasing urbanization, especially in coastal areas), there is a perception that the overall consequences are broader and deeper than we faced in the past.

No scientific claims have been made that climate change, a.k.a. global warming, is the specific driver behind any one of the recent hurricanes, superstorms, cyclones, floods, or this winter’s polar vortex. But there has been general discussion about the impact that elevated atmospheric and sea temperatures and sea level rise will have on the conditions that breed severe weather and thus the frequency and severity.

While policy makers cogitate over what mitigation measures to pursue and advocates for different sectors push for particular policies (or no policies at all!), many planning and infrastructure-responsible entities are busy doing their own planning and implementing adaptation measures. This measure is
focused on adaptation to climate change, including
how to increase infrastructure resilience to severe weather as well as the industry’s role in reducing carbon emissions and how to accomplish that without compromising reliability and energy security.

All of the articles in this issue were prepared and went to publication well before the Obama administration announced its intent to propose rules for carbon emissions in the electric power sector. This editorial is being written the same week as that announcement was made. We will not add to the already more-than-adequate coverage of the proposed rule making, other than to point out that most scientifically informed observers have commented that while it is very good to see a start made, the proposed reductions, if enacted globally, would still not be enough to maintain the goal of a 2 °C rise. We think it is a given that all infrastructure and indeed all human activity will have to adapt to warmer temperatures with the ancillary effects projected in terms of severe weather, higher sea levels, and so on. This issue was put together as a report on early work on planning for or implementing that set of adaptations.

The electric power sector faces a particularly large number of challenges:

  • Restrictions on carbon emissions or more transparent cost allocations as in a carbon tax or a cap and trade regime will force changes in the generation portfolio.
  • The U.S. administration’s announcements on proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules setting goals for reducing carbon emissions in the electric power sector (as we write this editorial) are a leading indicator thereto and a signal that change is coming, even if not exactly or necessarily in this form.
  • The planning going on in many cities and states for increased flooding and severe weather is another leading indicator. The state of New York’s “Renewed Energy Vision” relies in part on distributed resources to provide resiliency and assist in carbon reduction.
  • Many major corporations have plans in place to measure and reduce their carbon footprint already. As they apply this analysis to their total footprint including embedded carbon, they will increasingly press for carbon-free energy sources.
  • Warming temperatures have dramatic effects on load profiles (air-conditioning especially) and also
    on generation heat rate and capacity at higher ambient temperatures. Air-conditioning load increases will aggravate urban heat island effects.
  • Changes in precipitation patterns threaten drought and shortages of cooling water in some regions.
  • Warmer wintertime/springtime temperatures and changed precipitation threaten existing hydroelectric generation patterns due to changed snowfall/snowmelt patterns.
  • Rising sea levels threaten all coastal infrastructure, including substations and generation stations.
    The combination of sea level rise and increased storm surge greatly aggravate the risk to coastal infrastructure.
  • Increased severe weather threatens electric power infrastructure, especially overhead transmission and distribution lines as evidenced during the last four U.S. superstorms/hurricanes.
  • The “polar vortex” of the 2013–2014 North American winter may also be an early indicator of more severe winter weather in some parts of the globe—too early to tell but cause for concern.
  • Electric load may see an unanticipated growth as end users switch from carbon-emitting fuel based heating to electric systems, heat pumps, metallurgy, bakeries, a near endless list. Electrification of the transportation sector, an essential step in reducing emissions from vehicles, will increase electrical load as well.

In This Issue

In this issue is a collection of articles that describes ongoing research and “real” implementation work around climate change impact and adaptation in the electric power infrastructure sector. It does not begin to fully cover the spectrum of ongoing activities, nor does it begin to present comprehensive assessments or recommendations. What it does do is provide a broad overview of some ongoing planning and assessment activities in the European Union, the United States, and South America and some examples of “real” activities and technical possibilities.

First, Kelley Sims Gallagher and Zdenka Myslikova of the Tufts Fletcher School describe overall global progress in recognizing the problem and developing measures to deal with it.

The article from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development describes global initiatives at reducing carbon while preserving economic activity including the energy sector.

The article by the European Climate Foundation (ECF) on the ECF 2050 planning lays out the process and the results of developing scenarios for a reduced carbon energy economy in the European Union.

We have an article describing climate change adaptation work under way in Chile.

The article from the National Center for Atmospheric Research presents an analysis of what Superstorm Sandy might look like in a future warmer world and how that would affect exposure of electricity infrastructure. It is a sobering look at what future severe weather could look like against the worst we have seen recently.

The article by the IEEE Power & Energy Society Climate Change Technology Subcommittee describes experiences with a number of major extreme weather events globally and lessons learned from each.

An article from EPRI, CIEE, University of California–Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and Grid Bright discusses the role that distributed resources will play both in terms of reducing carbon emissions and in terms of increasing resiliency.

The U.S. EPA proposed rule Making

The EPA announced proposed rulemaking for carbon emissions from existing fossil-fueled power plants as this issue is going to the press. We are not going to attempt to summarize the proposal here—the press will have had plenty of coverage from all directions. But we do wish to note the following:

  • Considerable flexibility is left to the individual states.
  • Energy efficiency is the dominant focus, greater even than generation source carbon reduction. Energy efficiency is the “gift that keeps on giving,” and given losses along the system, a kilowatt of energy efficiency demand reduction is worth much more in source fuel consumption.
  • Each state needs to prepare a plan and cost benefit analysis.

This argues that studies along the lines of the ones presented and referenced here will become a major activity in 2014–2015. Studies such as the equivalent of a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) study that looks at energy production costs and operational and reliability aspects will be needed nationwide that factor in all the elements noted above­—and more. We have seen a number of state and regional studies of RPSs that examine different levels of renewable energy resource penetration and the energy production cost impacts under today’s operating paradigm—market structures, reliability standards, operating protocols. These studies are typically aimed at the economic costs of shifting to renewable energy resources. The next steps will include:

  • RPS-like studies that include scenarios for end-use fuel switching to electricity as users reduce their own carbon footprint
  • the incorporation of increased energy-efficiency programs as a way to mitigate demand growth
  • the interlinkage of climate change and electric demand due to increased air-conditioning loads
  • the resiliency of different energy resource portfolios against climate change induced risks including water availability, higher temperatures, and severe weather.


Climate change/global warming is increasingly accepted as scientific fact, even if the details are going to take some years to fully understand. Severe weather events are one major cost impact of global warming—recent history demonstrates this—and adaptation to general warming as well as to severe weather is imperative today. Even if the most ambitious scenarios for carbon reduction were to occur, we still will face more Sandys, more Katrinas, and more and deeper polar vortex winters, so adaptation is inevitable. Decision making is going to have to be informed by a better understanding of all the vulnerabilities and interrelationships, and the balance of adaptation and mitigation measures that we adopt will depend upon societal understanding of the costs and risks of each.

In This Issue

Feature Articles

Departments & Columns

Upcoming Issue Themes

  • November/December 2017
    Renewable Integration
  • January/February 2018
    Societal Views of the Value of Electricity
  • March/April 2018
    Controlling the Unpredictable Grid