Climate change in the Midwest will cause several threats to how energy is distributed. Current power distribution mechanisms—mostly a grid supplied with energy produced by fossil fuels, with a growing network of renewable energy sources—were built for historical temperatures, water availability, and storm events. Due to increasing air and water temperatures, decreasing water availability, and increasing intensity and frequency of storm events, the performance of existing power distribution systems and infrastructure have already been impacted and will continue to be unless action is taken.
Climate Implications – Distribution Mechanisms
Increasing air and water temperatures
Rising temperatures will increase electricity demand for cooling. Per capita residential cooling demand in Indiana’s 15 largest cities is projected to increase 23 to 28 percent by mid-century and commercial buildings will see a five percent increase in overall energy demand.
While demand is increasing, the distribution mechanisms will see reduced efficiency and decreased transmission capacity due to higher ambient air temperatures. The higher temperatures reduce the current carrying capacity and decrease the transmission efficiency of electric lines while also causing overhead transmission lines to sag. The problem is exacerbated as higher nighttime temperatures prevent transmission lines from cooling overnight. The higher temperatures can also shorten the lifespan of transformers and other electrical equipment.
Power plants that use water for cooling are also at risk. As temperatures rise, the water they use for cooling becomes too warm to cool the system, forcing the plant to slow down or halt production. Higher water temperatures also slow energy distribution as power plants are not able to discharge cooling water into a waterway that is too hot as it can damage the aquatic ecosystem.
Decreasing water availability
As summer temperatures increase and summer precipitation decreases, the Midwest will experience decreased water availability. Groundwater supplies will also decrease, which further reduces the amount of water that is available.
For power plants, less water means they have less they can use for cooling, resulting in reduced generational capacity. Reductions in river levels impede barge transportation of crude oil, petroleum, and coal, which causes delivery delays and increased cost. Decreased water availability will also affect bioenergy production, especially as competition increases for water usage.
Increasing intensity and frequency of storm events
Extreme precipitation and extreme heat events are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity in the Midwest, which will impact the distribution of energy.
The increased intensity and frequency of flooding will pose a risk to energy generation facilities and distribution processes and will disrupt rail and barge transportation of crude oil, petroleum, and coal. Distribution infrastructure, such as power lines, generators, and rail lines, can be damaged and knocked offline during these events. The impacts that will occur from the increased temperatures and decreased water availability will also be exacerbated by the increased storm events.