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In Harvey's Wake, DOE to Issue 'Resilient Utility Roadmap'

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey's path of destruction through Texas, which has already knocked major parts of America's energy infrastructure offline and threatens to do more damage, a U.S. Department of Energy office that President Donald Trump has placed on the chopping block hopes to help the country's energy sector to better withstand extreme weather and climate change, even if it is one of its last acts.

The DOE's Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis is working on a "resilient utility roadmap" and a "cost-benefit guidebook for resilience" aimed at utilities and regulators considering rate-based investments into energy systems devastated by floods, extreme storms, sea-level rise, wildfires and heatwaves, said Craig Zamuda, a senior DOE policy advisor, at an Aug. 29 meeting in Sacramento, Calif. The forthcoming guidebook — a project of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, state energy regulators, the DOE and its "partnership for energy sector climate resilience" — will also cover spending to protect energy systems against future disasters and the benefits of such investments.

Launched in 2015 under then-President Barack Obama with the aim of assessing energy system vulnerabilities and making the case for investing in power sector resiliency, the public-private sector partnership includes 17 power companies, including Austin Energy, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc., Entergy Corp., Exelon Corp., National Grid plc, Public Service Electric and Gas Co., Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric Co., Edison International's Southern California Edison Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

"We are looking to mature this partnership as we move forward ... we are looking at opportunities to expand that composition, as well as perhaps looking at moving beyond just climate resilience to other aspects of resilience as well," Zamuda told members of the California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission at the meeting. The DOE energy sector climate initiative is hosting a workshop in November to discuss the documents, he added.

"What we're trying to do is step back and say, 'How do we really define the attributes of the resilient utility? How do we really define a resilient utility in the absence of a disaster' ... where we don't know the level of resilience until the event has occurred?" Zamuda said. "We may well be unpleasantly surprised by the degree of resilience, or lack thereof, associated with utilities."

The principal policy advisor to the energy secretary since 2013, the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis "is being phased out and will be closed in FY 2018 to eliminate duplication of effort and thereby increase DOE efficiency," according to the White House budget proposal. It has a current annual budget of $32 million.

'Deep uncertainty'

California energy commissioners called the meeting to consider the role of climate adaptation and energy system resilience as part of the state's 2017 integrated energy policy report. "The events of this week are important reminders of the vulnerability of our infrastructure," said CPUC Commissioner Liane Randolph at the workshop. "Obviously, as we know, the impacts or climate change are here and it's incumbent on our energy utilities to prepare for those impacts," added fellow commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen.

Yet, despite several open proceedings aimed at preparing California's utilities for the impacts of climate change, "We still don't know the best way to evaluate risks, what the extent and scale is and how to spend money to deal with them," he said.

Part of the challenge is the "deep uncertainty" associated with climate change impacts and adaptation analysis, said LBNL scientist Alan Sanstad in a presentation at the workshop. "Strictly speaking, in this arena ... almost everything qualifies as [deeply uncertain]," he added, "not just because of the absence of probability information of this type but because there are large numbers of possibilities."