Friday, July 26, 2013

Energy and Climate Change:

A Two-Way Street

We have long been bombarded with stories about how our use of energy is affecting our environment and our climate.  The biggest concern has been that the carbon dioxide emissions from power production can lead to global warming, but particulate emissions may also have environmental and climate-related effects.  

Now, we are being told that climate changes may, in turn, affect our energy supplies.  The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently published a new report outlining a number of potential effects of climate change on energy sources.  In fact, they point out that we have already seen the beginnings of these effects.

The most troubling aspect of this report is that virtually all sources of our energy supply are vulnerable to some degree.  Furthermore, there are multiple and widespread phenomena that can affect the energy supply, from droughts to floods, and from storms to rising sea levels.

Power plants of all kinds depend on cooling water, so droughts can affect nuclear plants, fossil plants, hydroelectric plants, and even solar plants.  Barges carrying coal and oil can be delayed by low water levels in rivers, and shale oil and gas extraction sites that use water may have to reduce or cease operations. 

Conversely, floods and storms that are becoming more frequent or more severe due to changes in the climate can force power plants to shut down, and rising sea levels can ultimately affect many power stations and other energy-related facilities that are sited on coastlines.  Storms can also damage power lines.

The report notes that we need to begin to pay more attention to these potential problems.  In some cases, improvements to the infrastructure can help make our facilities more resilient to phenomena such as storms and floods.  In other cases, R&D may be able to develop ways to extract oil and gas, and to cool power plants, in ways that use less water.

In the nuclear field, it is noteworthy that some of the advanced reactor concepts are designed to use coolants other than water.  Although these designs are being developed because of other potential benefits, they should also be largely independent of most of these climate-related effects.  They would certainly be more resilient to droughts, and since they would not need to be sited near sources of water for cooling, they should be less vulnerable to flooding, storm surges, or rising sea levels as well. 

It is clear that much more will need to be done as we begin to understand all the interactions between our energy supply and climate change, both to harden and protect our existing energy infrastructure, and to design more robust systems for the future.  It is heartening to know that at least some of the advanced technology developments we have been pursuing in the nuclear field are already steps in the right direction.


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