Climate change and the US energy sector

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Courtesy of Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation (OTEC)

As President Obama emphasized in his speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, climate change is happening. It is here, it is now, and as Obama warned, “Our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind.” But what are these effects? The President reels off examples: sea levels in New York harbour increasing by a foot in depth over the past century, the 12 warmest years in recorded history occurring during the past 15, glaciers have melted further than predicted whilst some areas of the ocean have reached their hottest ever temperatures. As Obama bluntly puts it, the cost we face is “measured in lost lives, lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost businesses and hundreds of billions of dollars spent in emergency services and disaster relief.”

The predicted future effects of climate change is an extensively researched and discussed area – we’ve been told a thousand times over to prepare for an increased frequency of extreme weather events, climate refugees, environmental degradation and water shortages. However, there is one area that we seem to keep missing: the dramatic impacts of climate change upon our energy sector.

According to the US Department of Energy’s recent report – a detailed account documenting the increase in billion-dollar weather and climate-related events over the last 30 years (including the $65 billion cost of Hurricane Sandy in 2012) – climate change will harshly threaten the availability and reliability of the U.S energy sector.

The report entitled, US Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change released in July 2013 highlights that with increased sea levels, extreme weather patterns and decreasing water availability– the future of many energy sectors can be severely jeopardized in regards to fuel extraction and electricity production, storage and delivery.

Capturing the vulnerability of the US energy sector to climate change, the report lists examples of already documented climate-driven damage across US energy sectors. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and Rita significantly harmed oil wells and refineries on the Gulf Coast, destroying 115 offshore platforms and damaging 535 pipeline segments, resulting in a near total closure of the Golf’s offshore oil and gas production for almost two months.

The following year, two units at Exelon’s Quad Cities Generating Station in Illinois had to reduce their electricity production to less than 60% electricity capacity due to the temperate of the Mississippi River being too high to discharge heated cooling water from reactors.

In October 2007, the wildfires that tore across San Diego put more than two dozen transmission lines out of service – resulting in almost 80,000 customers without power, some for several weeks.

Then in July 2011, ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline buried beneath the Yellowstone River in Montana, was torn apart by flood-caused debris. Costing $135 million in damages, leaking an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the waters in Laurel, the pipe’s disruption in crude oil transport in Montana was severely felt.

More recently, in 2012, reduced snowpack in the Sierra
Nevada Mountains of California – a natural storage for much of the state’s water supply, declined California’s hydroelectric power generation by approximately 38% compared to 2011. Meanwhile, intense droughts – including one of the worst in US history, caused reductions in the depths of the Mississippi river, heavily hindering transportation
of energy commodities. The same droughts also forced several oil and natural gas companies to face financial losses due to inadequate access to water for over 6 weeks in several states including Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota.

These are just a handful of the 30 events that the US energy sector report cites from the last decade. Needless to say, carbon emissions from anywhere in the word – whether China, the U.S., European Union or Russia – have no respect for international boundaries. They harm everyone, everywhere. So with global climate change increasing the risks of coal, natural gas and nuclear power plant closures and decreasing water availability – a necessity for cooling down thermoelectric power plants, what can the world realistically turn to for clean future energy supplies here in the present and throughout the future?

One clear answer is Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) – a proven technology that taps into earth’s most abundant resource: our oceans. By utilizing the natural temperature differences between surface and deep water, this technology, without burning fossil fuels, generates a plentiful supply of renewable energy and fresh drinking water – two of the most fundamental needs for all people on earth.

This means that clean OTEC energy can be generated 24/7 – unrestrained by increasing floods, droughts and wildfires. With twenty years of uninterrupted cold deep ocean water flow through the deep ocean water pipes of the OTEC demonstration plant, built in Hawaii in the 1990’s, its reliability against tropical storms and hurricanes proves that climate driven weather poses minimal threat to OTEC’s key components. Our oceans really are one of the most stable foundations that we could ever place our dependency upon for a future of clean global energy.

OTEC’s capacity to fight climate change is also undeniable. Just one 10 MegaWatt (MW) OTEC plant has been estimated to provide sustainable, reliable energy for approximately 10,000 people – saving the burning of 50,000 barrels of oil and release of 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per annum in comparison to fossil fuel based electricity. With hundreds of ideal OTEC locations worldwide, the total potential of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) reduction is truly staggering.

The Department of Energy report warns that the pace of addressing the threats of climate change to our energy sector must quicken to change our dangerous current course. With 80% of the sun’s solar energy stored by ocean surface waters – 4,000 times the amount of energy the world uses on a daily basis – OTEC’s capacity as one of those global game-changers is clear. This amazing technology is here today. It is within our collective reach. As the old moral imperative implores our answer: if not us, who? If not now, when?

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