Commentary: The energy sector is feeling the heat
(International Energy Agency, 6 Sep 2018) It has been a summer of broken heat records in the northern hemisphere, from Japan to Spain and Oman to Canada.
News headlines have underscored the heavy toll that extreme heat can bear on human health and lives, with prolonged high temperatures further fuelling droughts and wildfires. Yet it is also important to recognize the less obvious impacts on the fundamental systems and services upon which we all depend, including energy.
We needn’t look far to spot the impacts of this summer’s unusually high and persistent temperatures on the energy sector. In France, four nuclear reactors were shut down to comply with maximum temperature regulations for water discharge. On the Rhine, low water levels disrupted barge traffic of refined oil products making their way to markets in Germany and Switzerland, causing barge freight rates to surge and lowering demand. Air conditioner sales soared, while their use pushed up peak electricity loads, causing blackouts in Los Angeles and forcing authorities in Tehran and Karachi to resort to load shedding. As a result of drought conditions in Pakistan, the water levels of its two largest dams reached “dead” levels, beyond which water cannot be drained through gravity – a historic first for the Tarbela Dam. Finally, wildfires in California linked to heat and drought, including the largest in the state’s history, damaged energy infrastructure and caused blackouts.
While any one of these events may be manageable in isolation, shifting “normals” driven by climate change mean that extreme heat events, water scarcity and increased cooling demand will only become more severe and/or frequent over time. Without adequate preparations, these changes will inevitably put increasing strain on our energy systems and raise the risk of wider disruptions.