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New climate-focused planning processes seen as necessary for power system resilience

Highlights

FERC holds first technical conference on climate change

Panelists call for greater integration of climate projections

Resource adequacy and grid planning approaches of today will not suffice in meeting future resilience needs brought on by extreme weather and the changing climate, power sector experts said June 1, as they advocated for a greater emphasis on climate vulnerability assessments and down-scaled probabilistic models.

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"Climate change really presents a fundamentally different problem than electric utilities and others in the industry have had to deal with in the past," Romany Webb, a senior fellow at Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said during a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission technical conference.

Unlike extreme weather challenges faced previously, climate change presents "cascading, compounding, synergistic risks," and will thus require a rethinking of old planning approaches and development of new planning approaches, she contended.

Susanne DesRoches, New York City's deputy director of infrastructure and energy, insisted "we absolutely cannot use historical weather data" to prepare for the coming challenges.

"We need to take climate projections and embed that into our planning process and ... we need a consistent approach between generators, the distribution network and the bulk power system," she said. "Right now, that's a very disparate set of operators and owners, and there's no consistency that's mandated for folks to be planning and designing with the same consistent set of data."

DesRoches recommended using the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report last released in 2018 detailing present and likely impacts of climate change in the US and regional adaptation and mitigation strategies, as well as looking to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "to provide a range of climate projections that are then utilized across the system."

FERC's role

From drought and wildfires in the West, to instances of extreme heat, cold or flooding across the country, to more ferocious and more frequent hurricanes in the East, "there's clearly something going on," FERC Chairman Richard Glick said. "I think most scientists would suggest that's certainly climate change, but from our perspective, we need to figure out what that all means for the grid."

Glick, noting that what was once thought of as 100-year extreme weather events are now taking place once every few years, convened FERC's first technical conference with an eye on addressing how the power system must respond to climate change on June 1. He hoped the two-day event would shed light on potential reliability rules or other ways the commission could better address the need for utilities to plan for these extreme weather conditions on a more frequent basis.

Commissioner Allison Clements said FERC and the regulated community must "deliberately think about and plan for these bigger challenges" while "recognizing that we're going through an energy transition and the mix of resources that grid operators will call upon to meet these challenges is changing."

Asked what FERC could do about extreme weather-risk, Massachusetts Undersecretary of Energy Judy Chang said that FERC just simply saying to the utilities and grid operators that they need to pay attention to climate-related risks and taking that a step further to mandate the incorporation of best-available climate data in resource adequacy and transmission planning would be an important starting point.

"Maybe the first time round is not perfect, but I think having FERC to say, 'Come up with a plan that incorporates climate data,' is a huge step forward that we haven't had in this industry," Chang said.

Planning processes

Webb agreed that climate projections need to be integrated into existing planning processes, but added that thought must also go to "new specialized planning processes that are better suited to dealing with climate change along the lines of ... more specific climate resilience planning."

The goal, Webb said, should be to "have a better understanding of how these multiple climate impacts could occur simultaneously and affect multiple parts of the system, where those risks are and how they actually manifest."

But current deterministic planning methodologies and N-1 contingency scenarios should not be thrown away, American Electric Power Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Barton asserted.

Rather, the sector must complement those practices by layering on probabilistic planning based on a couple of scenarios that factor in the down-scaling of some of the climate views, she said. Down-scaling refers to the use of large-scale climate models to make climate predictions that are useful for local planning.

Utilities and grid operators, however, need to use the same or similar scenarios so that similar views and analyses are produced, she said, given that power companies often have to get transmission project approval from state regulators. "If my determination of need is different than a neighboring utility's determination of need, it just introduces unnecessary confusion," Barton said.

Costs, decarbonization

The costs of translating climate vulnerability assessments into solutions for consumers must also be considered and "cannot be decoupled from the investments we're going to make for decarbonization," DesRoches said.

"Unfortunately, what ends up happening is you have this clean energy movement ... moving as aggressively as possible, but we aren't at the same time integrating those future weather conditions and that resiliency that needs to happen," she said.

Further attention must be given to whether "we have to build today for [the year] 2100 projections that are at the very high end," or whether there are interim-level, flexible adaptations that can later be improved upon or upgraded with "technologies that we assume will come that we can install in the second half of the century to make those assets stronger," DesRoches said.

"I don't have easy examples of how to do that, but if we don't start thinking about it that way today, we're going to transition the energy system into a renewable system without having properly accounted for the cost of the resiliency investments that need to happen," she said.