Monday, June 23, 2014

Climate change - What does the electric utility industry think, and what should we do?

Here's an update on the front lines of feeling-based climate change regulation. In early June Transmission & Distribution World conducted a poll on their website, asking just two questions:
  1. Do you believe the climate is changing due to human activity?
  2. Will your utility change its business strategy?
Before getting into the poll results, let's consider the facts as we know them. Contrary to claims that storms are getting more severe and frequent, according to actual weather data this is not the case. It feels like this is happening, but that's mostly because of television. The Weather Channel, CNN and other 24/7 news outlets thrive on tragedy, fear and controversy. These attributes of TV news attract eyeballs – people watching – to their programming and websites. They hype nearly everything to attract more eyeballs.

When seven hurricanes hit Florida in 2004-05, the news media connected the seven dots and predicted fire and brimstone for the ages. We were doomed. Ten years later, low and behold, the number of hurricanes has not increased and has even decreased in subsequent years. There is some evidence showing intensity (wind speed) has increased modestly. However, recently I heard about a cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere where the winds were 150 miles per hour. The story included this factoid "We haven't seen such intense winds speed since 1950."

Wow, 1950. Wait… 1950?

What was the atmospheric carbon intensity in 1950? It was about 315 ppm, well below the 350 threshold identified today as the tipping point when all hell will break loose (current level is 400 ppm). So why focus on the intense storm in 1950?

I'll tell you why: it creates fear. The problem of emphasizing the 1950 example is there's not a strong scientific correlation between weather and atmospheric carbon. Furthermore, there's no record of increased number of tornadoes or strength as carbon has increased.

Kivalina, Alaska, with 400 indigenous Inuit inhabitants. They live in single-story cabins, and have always been protected from the ferocious autumn and winter storms by a thick layer of ice. But, as reported by the BBC, during the last two decades there has been a retreat of Arctic ice, leaving the village vulnerable to coastal erosion. The U.S government has attempted to help. A defensive wall was built along the beach in 2008. However, it could not prevent an emergency evacuation in 2011 following an major storm. Now, engineers predict the 7.5 mile-long barrier island will be uninhabitable by 2025.

There is one environmental change that is noticeable: sea level rise. The amount is small, but measured. A few millimeters. Nevertheless, we can imagine if the planet is warming a bit and the polar caps are gradually melting, that sea level rise is a natural outcome. That's not a good thing. It's a red flag, and we should act. But I think we have time for reasonable, meaningful action.

Now for the poll results. First T&D World asked “Do you believe the climate is changing due to human activity?”
  • 21% said it's not changing and the media is creating unnecessary alarm.
  • 52% said the climate is slowly changing, but it's ALWAYS changing, and we have plenty of time to adapt.
  • 20% said the climate is changing radically due to human activity and we're already past the tipping point.
  • 8% said there's not enough data to draw a conclusion.

And second, “Will your utility change its business strategy?”
  • 8% said no, except for coastal utilities.
  • 78% said we need to update aging energy delivery systems and increase resiliency to all threats, storms included.
  • 8% said radical redesign is needed due to increased storm ferocity.
  • 6% said customers are not yet at the point where they will accept significant rate increases to harden the grid.

The survey results say people in our industry believe something is happening to the climate and we must act deliberately to slowly decarbonize our energy production and delivery systems. But there’s a big caveat – we have time.

Today we are faced with a proposed EPA rule to eliminate coal, and expand renewable energy and energy efficiency. Sadly, the debate over climate science – while not dead – is moot for the time being. Those in charge at EPA have determined the time for action is now, and we must respond. Our job – as public power utilities representing our customers – is to determine the impacts of the proposal and – here's the hard part – develop an alternative plan to reach reasonable goals, without creating economic havoc among our customers and across society.

It's an awesome responsibility we must take seriously and with determination. 

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