climate change

Climate Change Hysteria: Utilities Will Benefit

Aug. 21, 2014
Utilities are getting regulatory approval to make major system upgrades. This is the kick-in-the-pants we’ve needed in order to get off the dime and update aging infrastructure.

Is climate change ‘real’? Probably. I’ve lived long enough to see local weather patterns change, and long term global temperature graphs show that the earth has gone through a number of heating and cooling periods over the millennia. So the climate is always changing. The latest upward trend of about a .5% increase in global absolute temperature over the last 100 years has happened before, even without human influence.

Half a percent absolute is an incredible level of thermal stability in the face of natural insolation variations and our best efforts to destroy the planet!

Are hurricanes and other outage-related weather events getting worse? President Obama and the Department of Energy say they are. But, at least in the case of hurricanes. The data doesn’t support the assertion that hurricanes are more frequent and/or more intense.

What the data does support is that several big (but not unusual) hurricanes have hit the most densely populated areas on the eastern seaboard – New York and New Jersey. The damage (and notoriety) would have been a lot less had they landed a little further north or south or veered out to sea again.

But those are analytical subtleties that political agendas (and the media) neglect or, to be kind, just don’t understand.

In his terrific article, The Politicization of Science, Sig Guggenmoos, Canadian ecologist and Editor of T&D World Vegetation Management Resource Center, contrasts real data with the media blast of political hot air.

“In April, Climate Central reported that weather-related power outages had doubled since 2003. While the authors concede an aging infrastructure and greater electricity demand are contributing factors, they point to climate change as a major cause. They state that while only two Category 4 or 5 hurricanes have made U.S. landfall since 1990, the average hurricane strength and total number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes is increasing. How they can make such a statement is baffling to me. Go to the National Hurricane Center web site and you can find that the average hurricane return period for the U.S. East coast from 1950 through 2011 is 0.55 years. The return period for Category 4 and 5 hurricanes is 6.8 years. The expectation then for the period of 1990 through 2013 is for 3.4 Category 4 or 5 events. Consequently, if there are any implied trends for climate change, they run opposite to the authors’ statement of increasing hurricane strength and frequency. They also state that while the trend in severe thunderstorm incidence is unknown, insurance companies are now paying out at least seven times more for thunderstorm damages than they were in the 1980s. Faced with a paucity of historical data to support the assertion of increasing frequency and intensity of thunderstorms the authors turn to a recent “ensemble of climate change models.” These models “demonstrated that rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases increases the risk of thunderstorms by adding more heat and water vapor to the atmosphere.” So in the absence of data, which would either validate or be cause for the rejection of the models, we should accept the model output?

This isn’t science. It’s pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.”

You nailed it Sig!

Still, utilities can’t take chances. Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast in 2012 and over one million customers lost power in the New York area alone. In 2011 hurricane Irene knocked out power to over 850,000 electric customers in PSE&G’s New Jersey territory. A month later a wet, heavy snow brought down numerous trees and power lines and 500,000 customers lost power. A year later hurricane Sandy came along and a whopping two million PSE&G customers were left without electricity.

As a result of these calamities, utilities are getting regulatory approval (in the form of $billions) and applause from their customers as they make major storm hardening system upgrades. They have to. If they don’t do better when another major storm comes along they could go the way of the Long Island Power Authority. LIPA was severely hammered for its lack of preparedness following Sandy. As a result, LIPA was privatized and is now PSEG Long Island.

The silver lining in climate change hysteria is this: we can expect accelerated adoption of new methodologies and technologies which will improve service even between storms. And it won’t be just coastal utilities that benefit. Any company with some history of outages caused by tornadoes, ice storms, derechoes, lightning… you name it, will share the benefits.

About the Author

Paul Mauldin Blog | Managing Editor, Grid Optimization Center of Excellence

Paul earned his B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley and is a registered professional engineer. He has worked in the energy industry for more than 25 years, developing and implementing advanced energy technologies. As research director for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. he pioneered methodologies used in the design, maintenance and control of energy delivery systems.

As Manager, PG&E New Business Opportunities (Unregulated Enterprise), Paul led a worldwide evaluation of gas and electric technologies and markets and provided due diligence for equity investments. As a consultant he provided guidance to utilities and the vendor community, nationally and internationally.

Paul has led a number of initiatives at Transmission and Distribution World, including special supplements, webinars, podcasts, and website development. 

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