Climate change posing increasing threat to power systems, warns WMO

The dam of the artificial lake of the Saint-Peyres in Angles, southwestern France, on 27 August, 2022. Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years last summer, according to the Global Drought Observatory. (Credit: Keystone/AFP/Lionel Bonaventure)

The energy sector will face increasing challenges from extreme weather fueled by the rise in global temperatures, a UN report states.

Heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events are putting pressure on energy infrastructure and threatening global energy security, according to a report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released on Tuesday.

The report, which compiles information from 26 different agencies, urges countries to adapt their energy sector to resist climate challenges, only one month away from key climate negotiations to be hosted by Egypt in Sharm El Sheikh.

“We urgently need to respond to the growing impact of climate change on energy systems if we are to maintain energy security while accelerating the transition to net-zero,” Fatih Birol, executive director for the International Energy Agency, said in a statement.

What’s happening. As climate conditions change and extreme weather becomes more frequent and intense, energy infrastructure for production and distribution is exposed to major disruptions, according to the WMO’s report ​on the state of climate services, which focuses on energy this year.

Intense heatwaves led to power outages this year in China, California and Argentina, as people cranked the air conditioning and overloaded the grid. In Russia, it was the freezing rain that disrupted the power lines in November 2020 and left hundreds of thousands of homes without electricity for days.

The authors also warn about insufficient rain levels in regions across the globe becoming a challenge for power production that relies on freshwater for cooling, including thermal, nuclear and hydroelectric.

Low reservoir levels from the worst drought in centuries in France and other parts of Europe also forced hydroelectric plants to run at low capacity this summer. A quarter of the world’s dams are within river basins with a high risk of being water scarce, the report states.

Sea level-rise, intensifying storms and flooding all driven by climate change also pose a security risk for nuclear plants in low-lying areas, according to the authors. Nuclear energy has been included by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the WMO as a crucial piece of the puzzle to replace dirty energy sources, but continues to stir controversy due to the toxic waste that it leaves behind and the need for strict security to avoid an incident.

Why it’s complicated. Despite the increasing risks faced by the energy sector, the WMO warns that less than half of countries have prioritised adaptation measures for their power grids in their climate plans. The energy sector is responsible for three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions and yet investments into renewable energies have slowed down in the last two years.

The war in Ukraine has prompted countries fearing an energy crunch to soften their position on fossil fuels, seen by many as the only way to alleviate the short-term impact. Several European countries announced plans to reopen coal plants while the EU recently agreed to label gas as a green source of energy. 

Faced with the economic fallback of Covid and now the war, African countries have joined forces to call for more investment in fossil fuel exploitation in the continent, prioritising energy access over decarbonisation.

But the report argues that the rise in fossil fuel dependency will only be short-term, and that renewables can be expected to outpace it within the next decades as the Russian aggression prompts renewed calls to cut dependence from oil and gas. WMO’s secretary general Petteri Taalas told reporters on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine in this sense could be seen as “a blessing” to the green transition.

What needs to happen. The WMO warns that to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, clean energy sources will have to double supply by 2030 from roughly a quarter of global supply, and investments into renewables will need to triple.

The report also argues that investing in renewables can ease some of the pressure on water resources as solar and wind require less water to generate electricity than fossil fuels, nuclear or hydropower. 

Investment in solar would also be a major opportunity for Africa, which concentrates 60 per cent of the best solar resources globally and still only makes up one per cent of the world’s solar generation.

The shift to renewables will also need better climate information services, according to the report, which can help better forecast for climate conditions and plan accordingly in the long run. This can mean, for example, deciding which river basins are best suited for a new dam depending on water stress projections or planning ahead of peaks in electricity demand to be expected during a heatwave.

“Time is not on our side and our climate is changing before our eyes. We need a complete transformation of the global energy system,” said Taalas.