There’s been plenty of attention paid to the recent release of the Third National Climate Assessment report – and appropriately so. The lead paragraph of New York Times reporter Justin Gillis’ story put it rather bluntly:
“The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported Tuesday, with water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse, and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects.”
Even for those of us that have been urging U.S. action on climate, the assessment was pretty stark and the message was clear: the time to act came a long time ago. We need to get busy catching up.
But the optimist in me was excited about a chapter in the report that hasn’t yet gotten much attention. Chapter 4 focuses on Energy Supply and Use, and though the energy challenges caused by climate change are formidable, the U.S. is very well positioned to meet them if our leaders will get behind some practical solutions. There are five key takeaways in the Energy chapter:
- Extreme weather will increase, which will put added pressure on energy production and transmission.
- The increased energy use from higher summer temperatures will outweigh the reduced energy use from warmer winters. In other words, we’re going to use more energy to cool our homes and businesses.
- More frequent and more severe drought will lead to energy production and transmission challenges.
- Rising sea level will threaten coastal regions where a significant portion of our oil and gas refining infrastructure is located, thus threatening energy production.
- As technology changes, the energy challenges and opportunities will change, too.
The good news
The U.S. is poised to spend $2 trillion over the next two decades updating our century-old electric grid. That’s an expenditure that is already on the horizon. If we do it right, four of the five points above are manageable (number four will prove to be especially difficult since sea level rise will force the relocation of Louisiana’s and Texas’ coastal refineries to higher ground).
“Negawatts” are lying on the table
First, unleashing the full potential of energy efficiency in this country is going to be the cleanest, cheapest, and fastest solution to climate change. For every megawatt of energy utilities don’t have to generate (also referred to as “negawatts”), we’re reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere, which cause temperatures to rise and a whole domino effect of negative impacts on our ecosystem, economy, and our daily lives. According to a 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Americans used less energy in 2012 than in 1999, even though the economy grew by more than 25 percent (adjusted for inflation) over that period.” However, another report released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in April suggests that there is still a lot of untapped potential on the table:
If every state adopted the four policies in our scenario, in 2030 carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector would be reduced by 26% relative to 2012 emissions, and power demand would be reduced by 25% relative to 2012. The nation would avoid 600 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, save over 925 million MWh of electricity, and obviate the need for 494 power plants in 2030.”
We’ve done a lot already in the realm of energy efficiency, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done and the recent partisan squabbling surrounding the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill (the first energy-related bill to reach the Senate floor since 2007) does not bode well. Our leaders need to put their political agendas aside and invest in the “negawatt” before it’s too late.
A smarter grid is the answer
Second, a smarter grid that integrates more solar and wind energy – and responsibly balances existing energy sources – will be cleaner, more resilient, and more efficient. This is especially true in the wake of extreme weather events. That’s because renewable energy is less vulnerable to sustained disruption than other forms of energy. More traditional forms of energy, such as fossil fuels, require an input (coal, oil and gas, etc.) that needs to be shipped, often via pipeline, to create electricity, leaving them vulnerable to a natural disaster that might interrupt transport. On the other hand, renewable energy has the ability to generate stable, on-site power from sources such as solar and wind when it operates from a microgrid.
A microgrid can generate power both connected to and independently from the main, centralized grid. They can vary in size, providing power to several city blocks or to an individual home, but all microgrids have the unique potential to “island” from the main electricity system and often incorporate energy storage. This is important during and/or in the wake of a natural disaster because this autonomous electricity system is able to power local buildings regardless of whether or not the main electric grid is down. Microgrids are also cleaner and more efficient because they enable the generation of power near where it will be used– many times by cleaner resources.
Demand response to the rescue
Third, technology exists today that allows utilities to respond to peak, or high, energy demand – which will increase as summers get hotter and winters get colder – and reward customers that volunteer to reduce their energy use. This technology is called demand response, and a whole business sector has emerged around this concept to help people, businesses, and utilities better manage their energy consumption and expenditures. This technology already exists in a few states, like Texas and California, as well as the PJM Interconnection (the power grid in thirteen states surrounding Pennsylvania), which launched a demand response program that is expected to pay participants more than $300 million in 2014-2015, in addition to the $1.2 billion they have already received through savings. This model could be replicated across the country and deployed more widely with the support of federal and state elected officials.
The energy-water nexus presents a great opportunity
Finally, water and electricity are inextricably connected, meaning that we can’t talk about the effects of a warming planet without talking about energy and water together. A large percentage of municipal energy use goes to treat and move water, and fossil fuel power plants require massive amounts of water. Addressing a water crunch requires better use of energy, and vice versa. A broader deployment of renewable energy throughout the electric grid and a more efficient, modern distribution system will not only reduce carbon pollution, but will also alleviate the energy challenges that more droughts could cause.
The solutions are right in front of us. And each of them would mean more energy security, more economic growth, and more protection from the consequences of climate change. On the flipside, the consequences of ignoring the energy challenges presented in the National Climate Assessment report are more of the very things the report warns us of: an inefficient, fossil fuel dependent energy system that will use water we don’t have, and will contribute to even more extreme weather, sea level rise, drought, and hotter summers.
We can’t say we haven’t been warned.
This commentary originally appeared on Forbes.