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T&D Trilogy: Climate Change, Carbon Goals and Common Sense

Oct. 17, 2023
A balance that keeps electricity affordable and reliable while reducing emissions is a must.
As I’m writing this, the UN General Assembly is meeting in New York, where one of the top three topics on the agenda is “climate emergency.” In addition, the “road to zero” (by 2030) was also a major topic of discussion at last month’s T&D World Live.

The electric power industry has actually been successful in reducing carbon emissions over the past two decades. The Edison Electric Institute recently responded to EPA’s latest Proposed Rules to Regulate Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Power Plants. In its letter, EEI said carbon emissions from the U.S. electric power sector were 36% below 2005 levels at the end of 2022, resulting in electricity generators’ carbon emissions being as low today as they were almost 40 years ago, while electricity use has climbed 73% since then. This is a remarkable achievement.

I also want to clarify that I believe climate change is real, but I also believe climate change has been occurring for millions of years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has seen two deep freezes: 750 and 600 million years ago. Most scientists say carbon emissions are a major contributor to extreme weather. I’m not a climate scientist, and I’m not going to dispute them. I believe lowering carbon and other emissions is good, but I also know that changes in generation assets can have profound impacts on electricity delivery. Common sense and reasonableness must prevail, and crazy deadlines like zero carbon by 2030 (Yes, I said it.) are neither. In addition, I understand this is a global issue that relies on a global solution and not everyone participates equally. However, like many issues in life, in this case it’s important to do your best and, at least to some degree, don’t worry about others.

A balance that keeps electricity affordable and reliable while reducing emissions is a must and here's why: This has been a year of record setting heat across the U.S. and the world. The UN’s World Meteorological Organization and European climate service Copernicus issued a report in early September saying the 2023 June, July and August period was the hottest such period on record since they began keeping such records in 1940. The organizations also reported that August 2023 was the hottest on record by a large margin and the second hottest only to July of this year.

Grid owners and operators have been impacted by these record-setting temperatures. In late July, PJM, the largest electric grid operator in the U.S., issued a Maximum Generation Emergency/Load Management Alert, which is a notification that emergency procedures might be required. On the same day, PJM also issued an Energy Emergency Alert 1, which signaled that all generating resources were already online or were scheduled to be online.

I wrote about ERCOT’s consumption records and conservation alerts in last month’s column, but since then it broke another consumption record on Sept. 6, when temperatures are usually getting cooler. On that day, ERCOT issued a Level 2 Emergency Alert, indicating supply was critically low and, in this case, system-wide frequency was below acceptable levels. This was ERCOT’s first Level 2 alert since winter storm Uri in February 2021. These are just two of many examples that remind us of extreme heat’s impact on grid operations.

Heat isn’t the only challenge. According to (NOAA), as of Aug. 8, there had been 15 confirmed weather/climate disaster events in the U.S. with losses exceeding $1 billion each. These events included one flood, 13 severe storms, and one winter storm. Since that report, two more weather disasters occurred in the U.S.  On Aug. 8, Hawaii experienced one of the worst fires ever recorded in the U.S. and the deadliest since 1918. For Hawaiian Electric Co., the cost of replacing electricity generation and delivery infrastructure will be large, but that’s probably one of the utility’s lesser worries. HECO has massive legal issues. Maui County officials filed a lawsuit against HECO saying that the “intentional and malicious” mismanagement of power lines by the utility allowed flames to spark. Law firms have filed numerous additional suits on behalf of victims, claiming the utility was at fault for having power equipment that could not withstand heavy winds, and for keeping power lines electrified during high wind warnings. It will be months before the causes of the fires are determined, and years before the lawsuits are settled, but we’ve already seen how similar scenarios can impact utilities.

In addition, on Aug. 30 Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida, causing billions of dollars in damage, and ⁠knocking out power to more than 450,000 customers in Florida and Georgia when it came ashore.

Electric utilities are not strangers to catastrophic weather events, but statistics reveal that their number and severity are increasing. NOAA reports that from 1980 to 2022 the U.S. averaged 8.1 extreme weather events each year resulting in at least $1 billion in losses. The annual average for the most recent five years (2018 to 2022) is 18.0 events. So far, 2023 is shaping up to be average with 17 events, but with three months left in the year, it’s unclear if it will remain average.

We’ve been cautioned about the impacts of climate change and global warming for more than a quarter century. I think we are now learning firsthand, or at least getting a good glimpse of what it’s like to live on a warmer planet. The catastrophic events we were warned about have arrived, and climate experts say they will get worse. In addition to working toward net zero carbon goals, we also must prepare ourselves, our structures, and our infrastructures for a harsher, less hospitable world. I don’t have to tell you this is a mammoth task for the T&D industry, which is already working on hardening its infrastructure.

About the Author

Teresa Hansen

Teresa Hansen is Endeavor Business Media’s Vice President of Content – Energy, where she is be responsible for content published in T&D World, Utility Products, and Energy Tech, Endeavor’s newest media brand in the energy franchise. In this role, Teresa is responsible for Utility Analytics, which includes two face-to-face events, Utility Analytics Week and Utility Analytics Summit.

Teresa has spent her entire career in the electricity industry. Prior to joining Endeavor, she was Vice President of Global Content at Clarion Energy. In this role she was responsible for all content presented at POWERGEN International, DISTRIBUTECH International and HYDROVISION International, as well as the content published on Clarion Energy’s North American media brands—POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World and Hydro Review. Teresa has 25 years’ experience as a technical writer and conference content creator, with 20 years at Clarion Energy (formerly PennWell). Her previous energy-related experience includes 13 years of service at a nuclear power plant and a brief stint as a senior research analyst for an energy marketing and trading company.

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