Future climate variation could produce a gap of up to 34% between renewable energy potential and demand without concerted efforts to improve energy storage options, according to new research.
At the same time, extreme weather events could reduce the reliability of power supplies by up to 16%, resulting in blackouts and power losses with major economic ramifications.
“As a result, we will require more investment into energy storage and grid improvements beyond the present situation,” says Dasun Perera, from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Launsanne in Switzerland.
The findings come from applying a model Perera developed with colleagues from Sweden and the US to 30 cities in Sweden.
They are published in a focus issue of the journal Nature Energy, which highlights the need to tackle the interchange between more frequent, unpredictable extreme weather events and energy supply.
The energy sector accounts for around 70% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, Perera says, so renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and hydropower are vital for generating clean, sustainable power.
Yet these forms of energy don’t coincide with peak demand. “For example,” he says, “your peak energy demand in heating might be during the night where you do not produce any electricity.
“Climate change itself brings many challenges to the main solutions that we have for climate change, which means we get trapped in a vicious cycle. It is essential to take fast action to get rid of this trap.”
Extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, such as heatwaves and tornadoes, compound the mismatch between energy demand and generation and in turn can damage the energy infrastructure.
Even a hot day with temperatures two degrees Celsius higher than an average 35 degrees could create a sudden spike in air-conditioning, and the resulting stress on the grid could potentially knock it out if there is insufficient back-up.
Surprisingly, Perera says, climate and energy scientists have not previously come together in a comprehensive effort to address the conundrum – and that was the motivation for creating the new model.
“This process was a bit exhaustive,” he says, “since both these communities have their own vocabulary and different interests.
“Finally, we were able to link future climate models with energy system models, which enabled us to see the impacts of future climate variations on the energy sector.”
An accompanying editorial in Nature Energy highlights the disproportionate impact of these events.
“Accounting for and formalising the impact of extremes is significant not just because it is the extremes that will break us but because the extremes affect the most vulnerable first and most devastatingly.”
The focus issue includes commentaries from several other disciplines to address associated legal, engineering and economic challenges, spearheading the urgent need for further understanding and preparation.
A major obstacle to growth, for instance, is “financial herding”, according to Amy Jaffe from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, US.
This herd behaviour describes how decision making is based on expectation of financial growths and losses, such as denying investment and insurance for energy companies vulnerable to climate risks.
As the editorial describes, these “have a natural tendency to become self-fulfilling prophecies”, resulting in real-world energy shortages.
Failing to consider physical climate risks could even result in a recession, according to Paul Griffin from the University of California, “the likes of which we’ve never seen before”.
His core message concerns too much “unpriced risk” in the energy market, the primary cause of the Great Recession in 2007-2008, leaving energy companies to crumble in the face of litigation, emergencies and subsequent insurance claims.
“Despite these obvious risks, investors and asset managers have been conspicuously slow to connect physical climate risk to company market evaluations,” he writes, calling for greater disclosure about risks to energy infrastructure, litigation and longer-term climate forecasts.
He points, however, to a warning by the Stern Report, “that investors’ obliviousness to the negative externalities of greenhouse gases – much due to human activity – represents ‘the biggest market failure the world has seen’”.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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