Climbing temperatures associated with global warming could wreak havoc on the U.S. electrical grid, according to a new study on the economic and social costs of climate change.
Published last week in the scientific journal Proceedings by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, and University of Michigan, the study says the country will need to spend at least $180 billion on the electrical grid by the end of the century to cope with peak consumption caused by rising temperatures.
Because electricity-driven cooling systems are the primary way consumers deal with hot days, it is accepted by most climatologists that global warming would lead to a rise in consumption. To date, most studies of the cost of climate change on the electrical grid have focused on how much average electricity consumption would rise, but few have focused on how rising temperatures might impact peak electricity demand.
The study predicts an increase of 2.8 percent on average of the total consumption of electricity by the end of the 21st century, with a 7.2 percent rise in the peak load demand, assuming a scenario of greenhouse gas emissions 4.5 times that of pre-industrial levels. When the modeling assumes greenhouse emissions of 8.5 times, the peak electricity demand goes up by 18 percent.
“As the electricity grid is built to endure maximum load, our findings have significant implications for the construction of costly peak generating capacity,” the study said.
“Because electricity cannot currently be cost-effectively stored at scale, [and] hour-to-hour variability in demand significantly impacts production costs. Because electricity planners in the United States often use reserve margins (capacity requirements above forecasted peak load) of 15 to 20 percent, the response of peak load to climate change will translate directly into increases in capital costs, even if the average generation impacts are not large.”
The study found that high-demand days that occur less than 1 percent of the time would happen 1,500 percent more often by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed. Under moderate control conditions, that increase drops to about 370 percent.
Results vary by region because of differences in local climate trends as well as in heating and cooling systems. Demand is expected to spike most in the South, and could actually decrease in the Pacific Northwest, which would experience warmer winters.
The study suggests the economic impact of climate change on the power grid can be mitigated if the U.S. ramps up its reliance on renewable energy sources instead of relying on fossil fuels for baseload generation needs.