From impacts on power lines to pipelines, DOE finds climate change looms large in U.S. future 

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2015

Climate change will be a major factor in the future of power lines, natural gas pipelines, fuel depots and rail tanker cars, according to the Department of Energy’s first installment of its Quadrennial Energy Review(QER), released yesterday.

The 348-page document, stemming from the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, focused on how hydrocarbons and electrons get from point A to point B, mapping out the current state of affairs and recommending pathways to ensure that energy reliably gets from producers to end-users in the coming decade. Proposals included more than $15 billion in spending and tax credits to improve energy infrastructure (Greenwire, April 21).

DOE did not intend the report as a detailed road map but as a spotlight on vulnerabilities in critical energy created by a changing climate and a shifting energy landscape.

“We are in the midst of a rapid energy transformation,” said Vice President Joe Biden, appearing in Philadelphia yesterday with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren to present the report. “Our energy infrastructure has to change to keep up with it.”

The United States is now the largest producer of oil and natural gas, with a rapidly expanding share of renewables like wind and solar power. But this energy bounty must traverse 2.6 million miles of pipelines, 640,000 miles of transmission lines, 414 natural gas storage facilities, 330 ports handling petroleum and 140,000 miles of rail, much of which is outdated, decrepit or at risk of disruption, the report found.

The spirit is willing, but infrastructure is weak

The conclusions echoed a 2013 report from DOE that looked at climate change impacts on energy infrastructure, reporting that the warming world is already having effects on power production and distribution (ClimateWire, July 12, 2013).

Though there isn’t much that power lines and pipelines can do to reduce emissions, they remain vulnerable to collapse under storms, buckling under intense heat or inundation from rising sea levels, so the energy sector must invest in adaptation. “By far the most important environmental factor affecting [energy transmission, storage and distribution] infrastructure needs now and going forward is global climate change,” the report stated.

However, the bulk of America’s energy — from manufacturing to distribution to management — is in the private sector, so DOE is limited to the margins, nudging the industry toward sustainable and resilient practices.

One area where DOE is taking charge is in developing regional reserves for fuels. Gasoline and diesel shortages following disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina illustrated the need for redundancy as wind and water shut down refineries and stopped tankers from reaching fueling stations.

Many groups praised this installment of the QER. The Solar Energy Industries Association and the Edison Electric Institute both supported the report’s call for modernizing the electric grid. The Nuclear Energy Institute, on the other hand, is already looking for the next paper. “NEI hopes that DOE will turn quickly to address equally significant challenges associated with electricity generation and investment,” the group said in a statement.

David Sandalow, the inaugural fellow for the Center on Global Energy Policy and a former senior official at the White House, the State Department and DOE, said in a statement that the QER, more than a year in the making, needs to become more than a set of proposals. “The enormous effort that went into producing the Quadrennial Energy Review will be worth it if these recommendations are adopted in the years ahead,” he wrote.