Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The body electric

Fact of the day:
The ability to move electricity from power plants to end users will also be threatened by climate change, since electrical transmission lines lose 7 to 8 percent of their transmitting capacity in high temperatures--just when demand for power rises.
This from a study on the effects of climate change on California's grid. Another little bit of knowledge to stew over:
The warmer climate will decrease hydropower generation in the summer months when it is needed most, the report said. High-elevation hydropower plants, which supply about 75 percent of the state's hydropower, are especially at risk, since the small size of their reservoirs allows little flexibility to cope with reduced snowpack.
At the same time, higher temperatures alone will require the state to increase its electricity generating capacity 38 percent over current levels by 2100.
 This is apropos of the crisis this week in India, where a massive blackout left 670 million people in the dark. That's roughly ten percent of the population of the world. Most of the power is back on today, but rolling blackouts and "power holidays" will continue to be a fact of life. (Revkin's roundups here and here.)

India's blackout points to a dangerous climate feedback -- the political feedback. Global warming is going to ramp up demand for electricity and threaten supplies. Not just hydropower but any plant that requires water for cooling (nuclear, coal, gas) can potentially be compromised by the heat. The heat ramps up transmission losses (did you know that? I didn't.) Power lines can be compromised by wildfires, floods, or other extreme weather event.

The political feedback comes when the public demands reliable electricity and doesn't care whether the source of that power makes the long-term problem worse. Some of India's electrical problems stem from a shortage of coal, which in turn is partially the result of the world's largest democracy protecting some of its last dense forests. They are wise to do so, but will they maintain their resolve in the face of events like those of last week?

The adaptive capacity of people is often invoked and praised in the climate debate. (Ironically, those that are most apt to profess unlimited faith in the human capacity to adapt and overcome are the most vehement that we should not start the process of adapting and overcoming.) But humans have another, less admirable characteristic; under pressure people frequently give way to emotional and short-term thinking that worsens the very crisis they are responding to.

The trade protectionism that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression is one classic example. Fighting terrorism by invading Iraq could be considered a recent exhibition. Russia's ban of wheat exports in response to its heat wave disaster is another.

It's critical that the world get on a better energy path before our civilization becomes so stressed that people lack the basic security needed to think about the future.


  1. Can't find the figure on the page you cited. Are you sure that's the right link?