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US government report says global warming threatens our power grid

US government report says global warming threatens our power grid

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The Department of Energy has cited climate change as a major danger for US power infrastructure. In a report released today, the DoE said that several likely consequences of global warming — including increasing temperatures, decreasing water availability, rising sea levels, and more extreme storms — could cripple energy facilities if changes aren't made. While we won't see most of the effects until years in the future, some could already be making it harder for dams, nuclear plants, or other facilities to function.

A warmer world, the department said, can affect "key aspects" of the entire power industry for good or ill. Melting permafrost or Arctic ice could limit where onshore operations can build, though it could also make overall drilling seasons longer. Temperature increases will make almost all power plants less efficient, as well as reduce the carrying capacity of power lines. And more prosaically, when things are hotter, people want more air conditioning and less heating. As a sample of what we could see in the future, an interactive map shows problems that plants, grids, and pipelines have had due to problems with water access or heat.

Melting permafrost could make oil pipelines unstable

In 2010, for example, a Washington dam lost over $200 million because lower-than-normal water levels couldn't provide enough power. In 2006, an Illinois nuclear plant had to reduce production because the Mississippi River was too hot to safely release heated water from its reactors. As a UN report pointed out last week, it's difficult to conclusively tie things like storms or droughts to climate change, and weather variations could happen regardless of rising temperatures. But it's generally accepted that the years between 2000 and 2010 saw a marked jump in temperature, with 2012 considered the hottest year on record by the US government.

Arctic oil and natural gas production, the department says, are "particularly vulnerable" to this increase. That's partly because the regions are extremely rich in oil and natural gas that can be tapped well into the future, and partly because temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as the worldwide average. If ice or permafrost melts, roads and pipelines will become unstable, and offshore rigs could find themselves dealing with more icebergs and fewer places to build roads or other infrastructure.

The Department of Energy isn't the only US agency to worry about climate change. The Navy has repeatedly raised the issue, as have the EPA and NOAA. And just like other agencies, the Department of Energy hopes to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures through a combination of better research and better technology. In some cases, that means setting up the best defense mechanisms possible right now, since energy infrastructure often stays in place for decades. In others, it will mean figuring out what climate change will actually mean for industry and getting companies to future-proof their plants. Like other reports, the tone is meant to both warn and reassure, but it's clear that the Department of Energy wants to see changes now, not years ahead.