Climate Change Could Seriously Impact Our Electrical Grid

December 16, 2019

Rising global temperatures could make our electrical grid less reliable — and scientists say we must take climate action now to prevent it.

aerial photo of a city electric grid at night

The U.S. electrical grid is facing an array of problems. Electricity demands are expected to keep increasing in the coming years, while challenges from climate change will make these demands more and more difficult to keep up with.

In a paper published in Environmental Science & Technology, researchers from the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and The City College of New York present a new way to model electricity expansion while taking into account the effects of climate change.

Authors include senior research associate Ariel Miara, CUNY ASRC Environmental Sciences Initiative director Charles Vörösmarty, and research associate Fabio Corsi.

In the U.S. our electricity largely comes from thermal power—including coal, gas, and nuclear power plants, all of which require water for cooling. As climate change progresses, warmer temperatures will necessitate more cooling, but freshwater resources are limited. At the same time, rising temps will put more strain on the grid due to increased demand for air conditioning and other cooling systems.

Traditional modeling methods don’t consider climate-water constraints (warmer temperatures and limited freshwater availability), or if they do, they don’t include feasibility checks. The new paper highlights how important these considerations are, and offers suggestions to adapt the grid in the coming years.

Short of drastically reducing U.S. energy usage, the challenge scientists and engineers now face is to help the grid meet these demands and stay reliable, while keeping electricity affordable and simultaneously reducing environmental impacts.

The authors take these factors into account by developing a new model for grid expansion that considers climate-water constraints, and by comparing it to one that does not. The climate-adjusted model predicts we will need an increase of 5.3% to 12% in our national-level grid capacity. This jump would come with an infrastructure bill totaling somewhere between $125 billion and $143 billion—and that’s on top of the non-climate-adjusted projections. Without adapting to climate-water effects, the authors find, the grid would face reliability issues.

To get to this capacity while maintaining reliability, the authors recommend increasing renewable energy sources, which require much less water, and certain types of natural gas plants that also have lower water usage. These changes would also help lower carbon emissions from electricity generation, the authors say.