Resilience is key in new climate reality

The electricity systems must prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Many states and cities — and many utilities — are reexamining their capacity to withstand uncertainties, emergencies and attacks of various kinds. Although governments and utilities long have developed and deployed emergency response protocols, new conditions are making new demands to increase resilience. These new conditions fall into several categories ranging from cyber-attacks to catastrophic storms.

Although the general category of "acts of God" or "natural disasters" always has been on the planners’ agenda, today they also need a thorough examination of what has been called "the long emergency": the impacts of climate change. These impacts include the gradual but relentless increase in ambient heat, extreme heat events and catastrophic storms, fires and floods.


Despite resemblance to other weather events, the impacts of climate change are really a category all their own. In addition, no state is immune from climate change effects. This means energy planners need to be aware of anticipated climate impacts to make wise planning and infrastructure decisions. In other words, planning for energy resilience should not be divorced from the effects of climate change; rather, an explicit assessment of its risks is essential for a meaningful resilience policy.

What do we mean by resilience is an essential exercise? So many localities are grappling with that question. New York uses this definition for resilience, distinguishing it from simply hardening utility infrastructure to withstand the next storm: "Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand shocks and stresses while still maintaining its essential functions" (PDF). 

New York also has taken steps to address energy resilience. For example, following Superstorm Sandy, New York’s Consolidated Edison agreed to modify its risk assessment tools to incorporate future climate effects, such as increased heat, extreme heat events, storms and sea level rise. Con Edison also reconsidered its engineering design standards based on the maximum temperature the system was engineered to withstand.

Other regions have, of course, other challenges — not only for emergencies, but also for load-shifting effects such as changing load profiles as weather patterns change. 

The New York Public Service Commission stated, in its 2015 Con Edison rate order, "We expect the utilities to consult the most current data to evaluate the climate impacts anticipated in their regions over the next years and decades, and to integrate these considerations into their system planning and construction forecasts and budgets."

Hopefully, New York’s leadership in addressing resilience concerns through its Reforming the Energy Vision initiative — the most comprehensive regulatory and business model reform effort in the country — will pave the way for others to follow suit.

Global corporations are facing a similar challenge in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Key findings from a 2015 report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, "Weathering the Next Storm: A Closer Look at Business Resilience," include: 

  • Most major companies recognize and report climate risks. Ninety-one percent of companies in the S&P Global 100 Index see extreme weather and climate change impacts as current or future risks to their business.
  • Companies worry about climate impacts beyond their facilities. Almost all companies interviewed expressed concern about impacts to their supply chains and public infrastructure.
  • There isn’t one right way to assess and manage climate risks. Many companies view climate change as a "threat multiplier" that exacerbates existing risks. This puts climate change into a familiar context, but could cause companies to overlook or underestimate the threats they face.
  • Companies struggle to translate long-term, global climate data into short-term, local risks. Despite growing access to climate-related data and tools, companies say they need "actionable science" that helps them understand locally specific risks or risk scenarios.

We are fortunate to have access to an enormous archive of anticipated climate change impacts. And scientists long have been able to forecast statewide and even local climate impacts reasonably accurately. Energy planners ignore the scientific climate change studies of our own neighborhoods at our peril.

This article originally was published on Rocky Mountain Institute Outlet blog.