Climate change will disrupt existing energy systems

As climate changes and extreme weather events become more commonplace, we will need to fundamentally rethink how we produce renewable energy. Researchers at EPFL have developed a simulation method to reduce the adverse influences due to climate-related uncertainties in the energy sector and guarantee robust operation of energy infrastructure during extreme climate events.

Severe droughts and storms, bitter cold, intense sunlight and thicker cloud cover might sound like the stuff of science fiction. But like it or not, this is the future that awaits us as climate change takes hold. Just half a century from now, these extreme conditions will affect energy demand and push our supply systems to their limits. Because today’s renewable energy systems are designed with current weather patterns in mind, they will no longer meet demand for power as our climate evolves. Researchers at EPFL have developed a stochastic-robust optimization simulation method to consider both standard variations and extreme weather events. Their findings have been published in the journal Nature Energy.

Smart Grid © 3alexd

Numerous researchers in the energy sector are working on new, sustainable energy supply solutions. Yet very few of these systems consider the influence of future climate variability because, until now, there has been no robust method that takes a holistic view of climate change. The world will be a very different place in 2070, not least as extreme weather events become much more commonplace. Scientists working on tomorrow’s energy systems need to factor this into their thinking today. “We observed that current energy systems are designed in a way that makes them highly susceptible to extreme weather events such as storms and heat waves,” says Dasun Perera, a scientist at EPFL’s Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory (LESO-PB). “We also found that climate variability will result in significant fluctuations in renewable power being fed into grids as well as energy demand. This will make it difficult to match the energy demand and renewable power generation. Dealing with the effects of climate change is going to prove harder than we previously thought.” Perera focused in particular on renewable energy microgrids.

Winter storm covers solar panels ©2ndLookGraphics

The research team examined the impact of weather extremes and variations on both energy demand and the resilience of energy supply systems, deliberately approaching the issue from a brand-new angle. “Everyone’s talking about how energy production is driving climate change,” says Perera. “But, to our surprise, nobody had tried to connect these two issues holistically. Climate scientists focus on climate change, while energy experts concentrate on energy systems and grids. As the growing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events puts our energy systems under strain, we realized it was high time to look at the bigger picture.”

Failing to take climate mitigation and adaptation seriously could have severe, even disastrous consequences in the near and long term, disrupting energy supplies and causing partial or total power outages. Dealing with the fallout could prove extremely costly for cities and urban areas. Some 3.5 billion people currently live in urban areas, consuming two-thirds of the world’s primary energy supply and producing 70% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. “If we do nothing, our current energy systems will no longer be able to meet demand,” says Jean-Louis Scartezzini, who heads the LESO-PB lab at EPFL.

Europe from space at night with city lights showing European cities © Nasa

The researchers applied their method to 30 cities throughout Sweden, including at northerly and more southerly latitudes, considering 13 climate change scenarios. They found that uncertainties in renewable energy potential and demand could lead to a significant performance gap brought about by future climate variations and a drop in power supply reliability. Under extreme conditions, hourly demand for heating and cooling across the country’s current residential housing stock could be anywhere between 50% and 400% higher than the historical 20-year average. The team’s findings for cities in northern Sweden hold true for large parts of central Europe.

Quantifying the impacts of climate change and extreme climate events on energy systems

A. T. D. Perera1,2, Vahid M. Nik3-5, Deliang Chen6, Jean-Louis Scartezzini1, Tianzhen Hong7