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FEATURE: Making power generation resilient to climate change

This week, nations conclude a series of UNFCCC-sponsored meetings in Bonn, Germany to explore, among other issues, developing country steps to take NAMAs or ‘Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions’.  Thus, it’s timely to reflect on how power generation, until now heavily associated with fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, could be developed in ways that are compatible with climate change. In a CDKN guest article, Frauke Urban, Research Fellow at IDS, highlights how climate change is putting power generation at risk. A recent report, authored by Dr Urban and Dr Tom Mitchell of CDKN, urges countries to make their power generation systems more climate-resilient. 

What happens to electricity generation if there are more droughts, or flooding, or storms? It’s not just communities living next to a power plant who are affected: we could all be hit with price rises, lost life, ecosystem damage, power cuts and job losses. Our power generation systems risk turning into major liabilities as countries North and South are increasingly affected by the impacts of climate change. Those are the findings of Climate Change, disasters and electricity generation, a report just published by the Strengthening Climate Resilience consortium (Institute of Development Studies, Christian Aid, Plan International).

Energy generation from fossil fuels and even renewable energy – such as solar and wind – could be vulnerable to sudden climatic changes. More than 80 per cent of the global primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels, mainly from oil and coal, and a significant proportion from nuclear power. Let’s look at the vulnerability of fossil fuel and nuclear technologies to climate change, first.

Europe suffered major heatwaves in 2003 and 2006 including in France – where 77 per cent of electricity comes from nuclear power. These heatwaves severely affected the power supply when low river flow rates and droughts caused plants to limit output or shut down. When water stress builds in any area, the availability of cooling water for both nuclear and fossil fuel plants has the potential to create a serious constraint to power generation. Fossil fuel plants can also be affected by changes in thermal efficiency as temperatures change. Thus, there are a suite of interactions to consider between these technologies and climate change, even before one has considered such burning issues as the likely abundance and cost of fossil fuels in the future!

Meanwhile, renewable energy technologies could be affected by climate-related disasters. Hydropower systems, the most widely used renewable energy systems at present, are particularly vulnerable to extreme drought conditions. Wind turbines, the second most commonly used renewable technology, could benefit from changed weather patterns including increased windiness, although there is a risk of turbine damage under severe conditions.

In both developed and developing countries, the risk is that governments invest in energy infrastructure that could quickly turn into liabilities. The full report  by the Strengthening Climate Resilience coalition explores how the different technologies could be affected by extremes of climate in more detail – this is just a snapshot.

Improve linkages between agencies
Unless governments and energy suppliers improve their planning for natural disasters, lives could be lost, economies damaged and ecosystems destroyed. Planning authorities and energy companies can take relatively simple steps to make their energy supplies ‘climate smart’, including:

1. assessing disaster risks in Environmental Impact Assessments, feasibility studies and siting procedures for new power plants

2. improving the linkages between energy ministries, climate ministries, and disasters ministries in relation to energy policies

3. planning and developing climate change adaptation strategies for electricity generation.

Download the full report, Climate Change, disasters and electricity generation.

Visit the Strengthening Climate Resilience website

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