Climate Change and the Electric Power Industry

The earth’s climate is changing, and at a rapid pace. There are many indicators that point to a changing climate, including a global rise in temperature, warming and acidifying oceans, decreased snow cover and glacial retreat, increasingly extreme weather events, and more.

Nearly all actively publishing climate scientists support the consensus that the electric power industry is contributing to climate change, and will be instrumental in mitigating the effects of climate change.

How will a changing climate impact the electric power grid? What can the electric power industry do to prepare? In this multi-part series on climate change and the electric power industry, we will explore these and other questions.

Electric Power’s Contribution to Climate Change

It is well known that human activities are the primary driver of climate change. Electricity production accounted for 25% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019; it is the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S.

The electric power industry's GHG emissions come primarily from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas to produce electricity. Burning coal accounts for 61% of CO2 emissions in the electricity sector, and produces only 24% of electricity generated in the U.S.

After reviewing statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Prescient has developed several projections regarding the future of GHG emissions, as illustrated in figure 1. Prescient predicts that by 2035, electricity production will account for 18% of the total U.S. GHG emissions. By 2050, electricity production will account for 13% of the total U.S. GHG emissions. At the same time, total GHG emissions will decrease among all economic sectors.

By switching from mainly burning fossil fuels for energy to producing energy using renewable sources, the electric power industry’s GHG emissions will be significantly reduced, as figure 1 shows.

Can Electrification Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Presently, there is a push to electrify homes, cars and buses, and other industries in the hope of reducing GHG emissions. However, this change will only be effective if the electric utility industry can reduce GHG emissions produced during electricity production. Switching from gasoline-powered to electric-powered cars will only reduce emissions if the electricity powering the cars is produced by clean energy sources.

As long as electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, electric power generation will continue to contribute to climate change. After studying the U.S. Energy Information Association (EIA)’s breakdown of energy consumption by energy source in 2020, Prescient has created projections for the future of energy consumption by energy source.

This future is contingent on the electric utility sector relying on renewable energy sources as the primary resource in their energy production portfolios within the next few years. Between now and 2050, Prescient projects that energy consumption from renewable sources is expected to far outpaced energy consumption from other sources, as shown in figure 2.

What Can the Electric Power Industry Do?

To minimize the electric power industry’s contribution to GHG emissions through electricity production, most of the U.S.’s electricity must be produced by renewable energy sources as soon as possible.

This may seem like an impossible task. After all, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are variable and dependent on sun or wind. How can solar panels provide energy at night, or wind turbines spin on a still day? Plus, the grid is not necessarily prepared to transfer energy from distributed renewable sources.

Prescient Innovations

Luckily, there are plenty of innovations that electric utilities can implement across the grid so that they can provide enough renewable electric power to meet consumer demand, even during peak loads. For example, creating a varied portfolio of renewable energy sources, paired with high density energy storage technologies, can alleviate stress on a single source. Additionally, new technologies can be incorporated into existing infrastructure to increase its capacity to transfer renewable energy across the grid.

Existing transmission lines can be converted to electric powerways, which will allow transmission system operators to direct the flow of power from any point of energy generation to any point of energy consumption. This means that energy from distributed renewable sources, such as rooftop solar panels, can be smoothly integrated into the grid. Additionally, electric powerways will be able to move energy from places with abundant renewable resources to places with higher energy demand.

Existing distribution lines can be converted to electric serviceways that optimize the use of renewable energy provided by distributed renewables. This upgrade will facilitate the transfer of excess renewable energy while providing constant voltage at all customer locations.

Today’s substations can be converted to electric warehouses, an emerging concept that includes a collection of components usually found in a substation (incoming lines, transformers, circuit breakers, etc.), along with some new technologies, such as energy storage modules and voltage control modules. Electric warehouses will allow a smooth integration of energy from multiple sources, including distributed renewables, central generating stations, and energy stored at the warehouse. Electric warehouses create a system of energy storage on location so that sufficient electricity is always available.

Installing load sequencing panels, which allow consumers to track their energy usage in real time and will enable wide area load management, will help reduce demand for electric power and the need for more electric generating facilities.

Some of these innovations could be implemented today; others require more research. If the electric power grid is to significantly reduce its contribution to GHG emissions, it is vital that these and other innovations continue to be researched and incorporated into the grid as soon as possible.

Update the Grid to Address Climate Change

Updating the grid is not only crucial as we move to a greater reliance on renewable energy sources. It is also vital to increase the grid’s resiliency and reliability in the face of climate-related severe weather.

In the upcoming weeks, we will explore the intersection of the electric power industry and climate change, from the impacts of increasingly severe weather on the grid to the cost of grid updates. Follow Prescient on LinkedIn or Twitter to stay up-to-date with all of our blog posts.

Prescient Transmission Systems is a small electrical engineering consulting firm specializing in risk assessments and risk mitigation. To find out if your grid infrastructure is at risk due to climate change-related factors, contact us. We focus on wildfire risk assessments, blackout risk assessments, and more.

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