Emergency Preparedness + Response

Environmental Intelligence’s Role in Energy Operations

Much of the nation’s energy system is vulnerable to extreme weather events, which are occurring with greater frequency, intensity and length, due to the impacts of climate change.¹

While the U.S. energy supply system is generally diverse and robust in its capacity to provide service with few interruptions, outages have increased over the past three decades, and infrastructure damage due to extreme weather events is becoming increasingly costly.²

To anticipate and meet both the short- and long-term needs for energy imposed by climate change, environmental intelligence can help the industry make decisions to prepare for risks, protect assets, and develop infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Consider the following events:

  • In the summer of 2011, during a period of extreme heat, a 500-kilovolt, high-voltage transmission line from Arizona to California failed, starting a chain of events that eventually shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Approximately 2.7 million customers serviced by San Diego Gas & Electric lost power.
  • Extreme drought conditions in Texas caused the city of Grand Prairie to become the first municipality to ban the use of city water for hydraulic fracturing, a decision replicated by many other Texas water districts to protect water resources during drought conditions.
  • Record wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico destroyed more than one million acres, and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory — as well as two high-voltage lines transmitting electricity from Arizona to approximately 400,000 customers in New Mexico and Texas.³

To assist in building a reliable domestic energy future, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides decision-makers with the environmental intelligence, data and expertise to effectively anticipate changes, prepare for risks, and invest in a more resilient future.

Changes in extreme weather events and climate conditions have already been observed. These include an increase in extreme precipitation events, sustained summer heat, and intensified drought and winter storms. Each of these has the potential to threaten the efficiency and reliability of energy production and distribution. Combined, these events represent a significant threat to the U.S. energy supply system. For example, when Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast in 2012, eight million customers across 21 states lost power, costing an estimated $27 to $52 billion, when accounting for lost wages, inventory and the impact on industrial productivity.²

Two-fifths of the nation’s freshwater use is for power production.

The Risky Reliance on Water

One specific risk to the U.S. energy industry imposed by climate change is the industry’s increasing dependence on waning water resources. Two-fifths of the nation’s freshwater use is for power production.4 In fact, nearly every form of energy production employed in the U.S. today relies on sustainable water resources, including fossil fuels, nuclear power, biofuels, hydropower, and some solar power systems. This highlights the potential consequences of the decreasing availability of water due to changes in rainfall patterns and reduced snowpack.

The Impact of Rising Temperatures

In the U.S., temperatures have been above average during 12 of the last 14 summers, and this trend is expected to continue.5 Naturally, there will be a commensurate increase in energy use because of higher temperatures.¹ For instance, in summer 2007, triple-digit heat in North Carolina raised the water temperature so high that Duke Energy’s Riverbend and G.G. Allen coal plants on the Catawba River could not operate. Consequently, the utility was forced to scale back production, which caused electricity blackouts.4 This example foreshadows potential impacts to other regions with significant, water-related stresses, which include the Southeast, Southwest and Great Plains areas. The Electric Power Research Institute’s scenario-based technical projections of water demand in 2030 found that one-quarter of existing power generation facilities nationwide are located in counties facing water sustainability issues.¹

The Value of Environmental Intelligence

The National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center provide severe weather emergency alerts, which can help offshore operations prepare for and recover from the impacts of hurricanes. During Hurricane Isaac in August 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement reported that oil and gas production was safely shut down and restarted within days of the event following information received through environmental intelligence.¹

Additionally, environmental intelligence can aid in the assessing equipment requirements for heavy power line loads during extremely hot or other severe weather. The Severe Weather Data Inventory (SWDI) generates information critical to the detection and evaluation of severe weather, as well as preliminary and verified reports of storm damage. These and other environmental intelligence sources can help the energy industry prepare for changes brought on, and exacerbated by, climate change.

Reducing Industry Vulnerability

One of the best paths toward reducing the energy industry’s long-term vulnerability to climate change impacts is to further diversify its portfolio. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working with industry and other Federal agencies to research weather-driven, renewable energy.

For instance, NOAA has partnered with the Department of Energy (DOE) and two private wind-energy companies on the Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP). It is working to determine the best locations for future wind and solar energy plants, using weather data and models that develop more accurate wind forecasts from improved atmospheric observations. This environmental intelligence will provide greater certainty for electric grid operators, which will enable them to manage their fossil fuel power plants more efficiently. This also will help lower costs and emissions. Preliminary results show a reduction in forecast error, which has already translated into cost savings for energy generators.

In addition, NOAA released the Solar Resource Assessment, which includes a new solar resource database, which is being used by the solar industry to estimate the availability of solar energy in the U.S. Through these projects, NOAA can help diversify energy sources, and support the development, siting, and efficiency of renewables.

NOAA provides actionable environmental intelligence needed to ensure preparedness and resilience, allowing communities, utilities and other industries to recover from events, and employ innovative solutions to adapt more quickly.

  1. Dell, J., S. Tierney, G. Franco, R. G. Newell, R. Richels, J. Weyant, and T. J. Wilbanks, 2014: Ch. 4: Energy Supply and Use. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 113-129. doi:10.7930/J0BG2KWD.
  2. Executive Office of the President. (2013). Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages.
  3. U.S. Department of Energy. (2013). U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather.
  4. Davis, M., & Clemmer, S. (2014). Power Failure: How Climate Change Puts Our Electricity at Risk— and What We Can Do. http://www.ucsusa.org.
  5. Kunkel, K. E., Stevens, L. E., Stevens, S. E., Sun, L., Janssen, E., Wuebbles, D., & Dobson, J. G. (2013). Part 9: Climate of the Contiguous United States. In Regional Climate Trends and Scenarios for the U.S. National Climate Assessment. Washington, DC: NOAA Technical Report NESDIS 142-9.

About the Author

Margaret A. Davidson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Margaret A. Davidson is NOAA’s senior advisor for Coastal Inundation and Resilience Science and Services. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, at 8.5 feet above an adjacent marsh.