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Warmer weather demands change in energy infrastructure

By Pamela Freeman, September 2 2021 —

The incredible heat experienced earlier this summer led to record-breaking power demand. The extreme weather caused surging demands in Alberta, BC, and Saskatchewan. While demand was met, these heatwaves raised concerns about the capacity and capability of our energy systems.

“Power grids are suited to the environment in which they are meant to operate — electric systems have been designed around a certain set of parameters,” Dr. Sara Hastings-Simon, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, said. “It wouldn’t make sense to design a system in Alberta that can regularly deal with 40 degree temperatures.” Heatwaves and other extreme weather events are challenging for the system. 

The International Panel on Climate Change special report, released on Aug. 9, details a continued increase in the intensity, frequency and duration of warm extreme temperatures, with an expected increased number of warm days and a decreased number of cold days. A higher peak and frequency of hot temperatures are just some of the extreme weather events caused by climate change.

The changing demand for electricity services was detailed in a paper co-authored by University of Calgary professor Blake Shaffer and University of Ottawa professor Nicholas Rivers. In their models, demand in Alberta shifts from peaking in the winter to in the summer, due to warming temperatures.

Also predicted is an increased range of demand within a given day, meaning supply must be flexible. Energy services happen in real-time, so the power supply must meet demand almost immediately and be able to match changing use.

For energy providers, the effects of extreme weather mean balancing the costliness of adapting the electricity system to new parameters and the “need to provide reliable and affordable power,” Hastings-Simon said. 

There are compounding effects causing a strain on the power system, Hastings-Simon explains. Extreme heat affects infrastructure as well as generating increased demand for power, largely due to air conditioners. On the supply side, there is reduced capacity from thermal plants, as their cooling system is less effective, as well as reduced carrying capacity in transmission lines. Renewable energy sources are not without effects, as solar and wind are variable and sensitive to other extreme weather events.

Adapting Canada’s energy infrastructure for more frequent extreme weather will be costly. Infrastructure may be in poor condition or unable to handle the range and peak of future electricity needs — in any case, it will be expensive to update. 

However, updating these systems also allows for a reimagination of what they could be. It allows for a possible incorporation of renewable energy as a way to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. 

“Maybe we can use this to also address some of what we need to do around decarbonizing our buildings more,” Hastings-Simon says. According to Hastings-Simon, there is a “very nice match between the availability of solar power and growing summer demand.” Another opportunity available is installing air source heat pumps, which can be used for heating and cooling, instead of new air conditioners that have a lifespan of 10-15 years.

Cooling our homes is not only for comfort, but is crucial for people’s health. Hundreds of sudden deaths in BC were caused by the extreme heat. The affordability of air conditioners, and the electricity bills that come with them, cause inequity. Heat-related illnesses are experienced disproportionately by elderly, children, or socioeconomically marginalized, chronically ill or physically impaired, or physically active, as well as Indigenous people, newcomers to Canada and outdoor workers.

Hastings-Simon has optimism that there are effective and feasible ways to manage the effects of extreme weather and that there is momentum to implement them. There has been incredible technological development, as well as private sector investment in deploying other systems and public interest in alternative energy.

The City of Calgary’s Climate Resilience Strategy involves actions for mitigation, reducing our contributions to climate change, and adaptation, reducing the impact of extreme weather and climate effects. Notably, Calgary has launched an initiative to assess and promote the use of solar power and aims to expand district energy — an efficient, centralized heating system only currently in place downtown. Adaptation efforts to manage risk to our infrastructure are still in development.

“We need to start to think about how we make our energy systems robust and reliable and how we deal with equity issues that are going to become increasingly important as temperatures rise,” Hastings-Simon says. “[The IPCC report] was also very clear that there is still a very broad range of potential future. As we think about how to address the future challenges, we also need to do so with an eye to how are we doing so in a way that is going to reduce our emissions.”

It requires investment, but there is a possibility of synergy between sustainability goals and mitigating actions. Adaptation and mitigation of extreme weather events, while keeping equity in mind, is challenging but Hastings-Simon says “when you combine all of those you can often find solutions that are better at the end of the day.”

For more, Hastings-Simon is a part of Energy vs. Climate, an interactive webinar and podcast discussing the energy transition in Alberta, Canada and beyond. Check out The Energy Gang podcast for weekly discussions on energy, cleantech & the environment and Canary Media, an independent, nonprofit journalism entity dedicated to chronicling the transition to a decarbonized economy and society.

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