Climate adaptation and its impact on the power sector

Seo Climate Adaptation

Climate adaptation is the process in which global governments and industries reinforce and modernise vital infrastructure to help build resilient communities against the impact of climate change and its associated environmental risks. These risks are most obviously seen in the global increase of natural disasters and extreme weather events.  

Europe, regardless of the region, is not exempt from this risk and a policy plan must be put to work to help adapt the continent’s critical power system and bolster its climate resilience.   

The European power sector has made a clear commitment to reach carbon neutrality well before 2050. In fact, we are a leading sector when it comes to decarbonisation and so climate change mitigation. Regardless, we must prepare for the impact that climate change, and the extreme weather events it brings, will have on our expanding network of generation and distribution assets.  

The development of a power system strategy that creates a solid network capable of withstanding the impacts of climate change will also support the electrification of transport, heating and cooling, and industrial processes.  

The public will then better benefit from a clean energy system and a more resilient and flexible grid which together will enable the development of a decarbonised and electrified economy as Europe also exits from the current energy price crisis 

The climate context 

Climate change is well underway. Its impacts are already apparent and its effects are truly global. This has been conclusively proven in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Although specific changes vary by event type, climate scenario, region, and other factors, weather extremes such as heat waves, severe storms, floods, and wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity everywhere. Permafrost is melting. Global sea levels are rising. Even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to zero in the near term, the long-lasting effects of their presence in the atmosphere will persist for decades.

Utilities and governments need to commit to a long-term plan that responds to this growing environmental risk. 

Some types of 1-in-10-year events and 1-in-50-year events are expected to become more frequent and intense with climate change. For instance, the temperature of the annual hottest day, the number of extreme heat wave days, the maximum of consecutive dry days and the level of precipitation for consecutive raining days are all expected to increase in the coming decades. Although typically expected to be felt strongest in Africa and the wider global south, these impacts will not spare countries in Europe, requiring the development of a strategy across the continent for enhancing critical infrastructure's resilience to climate change. 

The difference between climate mitigation and adaptation 

Climate mitigation includes the actions, plans, and projects that make the impacts of climate change less severe by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Climate mitigation through decarbonisation is essential to guarantee the health of our global environment, better use of our natural resources, and the long-term sustainability of the global economy. 

In Europe, the Green Deal, the Fit for 55 strategy, and the REPowerEU plan have set increasingly ambitious targets for renewable integration and the facilitation of e-mobility, heat pumps, and flexibility solutions. While the development of these plans by governments is important, the European power sector is committed to implementing them and so leading the climate mitigation effort.  

Climate adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage caused. It is the process of adjusting to the current and future effects of climate change. 

Even as mitigation efforts steadily reach their goals, Europe and the world will be left with even higher adaptation costs as temperatures continue to rise. In fact, despite all these plans, given just the current state of the environment, forecasts for Europe still expect an increase in average temperatures with warmer summers, more heatwaves, fewer cold spells, irregular water flows, and an increase in the number of severe storms.

Recently, we have seen heat waves, droughts and wildfires scorch the Mediterranean, unprecedented flooding in central Europe, and more frequent storms hitting Ireland and the UK. Europe needs to brace itself for more such extreme events. Thus, climate mitigation and climate adaptation are inextricably linked. 

The electricity industry has a key role to play in adapting to climate change by building, maintaining, and enhancing secure and resilient energy infrastructure systems that ensures the protection of security of supply. This requires continued investments in the power system and supporting action from a broad range of stakeholders and policymakers. 

Impact on the power system 

Each part of the electricity value chain is affected by the impacts of climate change but in different ways. 

The power system’s climate adaptation plans and strategies should evaluate the potential impacts of this change in climate conditions on human, social, and technical systems. A proactive adaptation plan can help reduce some of the harm associated with these climate impacts. Some examples of how the effects of climate change will affect all of the power system value chain include: 

  • Generation

    • An increase in cooling water and air temperatures can negatively affect thermal plants 
    • Smoke from wildfires can reduce solar generation by 30% 
    • Wind turbines shut down to avoid damage in extreme storms 

  • Transmission and Distribution

    • Physical damage to energy networks can result in interruptions in service to customers
    • Wet snow can cause icing and snow sleeves
    • Intense and concentrated rainfall leads to high water levels and even floods, coupled with storms and winds this makes restoration even harder.
    • Heatwaves cause loss of load due to reduced grid capacity and overheating of transformers 
  • Consumer services

    • During droughts or heatwaves peak demand can exceed maximum generation  
    • Physical damage to networks can create health hazards for local residents 

Adaptation measures 

Together a more decentralised, renewables-based power system, customer flexibility and distributed energy resources (DER) can support the resilience of integrated energy systems during extreme weather events. Asset-specific adaptation measures include: 

  • Nuclear and Thermal

    The experience of the exceptionally hot summer in France in 2003 led to a vast program of modifications to better cope with extreme heat waves. The cooling units of power plants were resized, and operating practices were reviewed.  

  • Hydropower

    Methods already exist to handle water inflow variations and different water inflow patterns as long as the flows remain within capacity of the existing infrastructure. Recent advances in higher spatial resolution of hydrological models facilitate dispatch decisions.

    A high level of predictable and dispatchable hydropower in the generation portfolio supports the integration of other variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. 
  • Transmission and Distribution

    Local energy sources or active customers can be used during a crisis caused by extreme weather conditions. Traditional reinforcement of overhead lines or even their installation underground should be designed to account for increased wind speeds and icing.

    Technological innovations that allow for automation of the grid and remote reconfiguration of networks can help reduce the number of customers affected by faults. These should be complemented by coordination with local state authorities to help ensure a coherent approach to extreme weather events risk assessment.

Benefits of reinforcement 

It is now clear that climate mitigation and climate adaptation can no longer be tackled in silos. A failure to reach decarbonisation goals could result in increased climate adaptation costs in the long term, and a failure to adapt to climate change could be a devastating development for the European economy.

Indeed, the price of inaction now far outweighs the cost of building a sustainable, resilient society. Nowhere is this truer than regarding Europe’s crucial electricity infrastructure. At the same time, as increasing parts of European societies and economies are electrified, customers will have ever higher expectations of the resilience of the power system. 

This further proves that the benefits of a reinforced system will reverberate through society by acting as a solid foundation for the widespread electrification of transport, heating and cooling, and industrial processes. In turn, this benefits climate mitigation by reducing direct emissions and climate adaptation by facilitating the flexibility of the grid. Flexibility services will then lower energy prices for final customers by reducing the demand peak and the need for expensive grid expansions. 

Current regulation 

There are several legislative initiatives in Europe which affect the ability of the power system to adapt to climate change.  

  • In Article 7 of the Paris Agreement, countries commit to ensure their climate adaptation measures will take into account the impacts of global warming 
  • The Risk Preparedness Regulation aims to avert, adapt to and handle electricity crises including those driven by extreme weather 

  • The EU Taxonomy Regulation and the associated 2022 delegated act on climate change adaptation and mitigation activities provide a methodology and screening criteria to define environmentally sustainable activities 

  • The proposed Resilience of Critical Entities Directive asks every Member State to identify critical entities, establish measures to foster the climate resilience of that infrastructure and report disruptions to national state authorities.