California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) just became the nation’s first regulator to require utilities to better account for the impact of climate change on energy infrastructure and services, ordering them to prioritize it in their planning and operations.
With this week’s vote, utilities will now have to develop internal climate change teams and conduct regular climate vulnerability assessments of their infrastructure and of their ability to reliably serve all customers, especially California’s disadvantaged communities. This decision should lead to smarter, more climate-resilient infrastructure investments and help utilities better serve communities vulnerable to climate change.
This vote comes amid the latest evidence of the climate crisis’ devastating impacts on California: scorching wildfires fueled by an extreme heat wave, dry conditions, and lightning storms; the first rolling blackouts in two decades due to an unprecedented heat dome smothering the entire west; and continually rising sea levels.
The CPUC initiated a proceeding two years ago to ensure that utilities comprehensively and consistently account for the impacts of climate change on their day-to-day operations and future risks to their infrastructure and service. Until then, due to the lack of guidance, utility planning has accounted for climate change differently and to varying degrees. Going forward, the CPUC and utilities should continue to integrate climate change in all their energy planning activities.
The Energy Grid Needs to Adapt to Climate Change
Climate change affects all aspects of the energy sector: energy production, consumption, and energy transmission and distribution. Researchers at the California Energy Commission estimate that the demand for electricity to cool homes could increase around 5 percent compared to historical levels by 2030. More extreme heat events mean that electric demand for cooling on especially hot days would increase even more. This effect will be magnified in areas that already have very hot summers, like Los Angeles and Sacramento. And it is in these very areas where almost half of our state’s disadvantaged communities, many of whom live can’t afford to meet their basic energy needs, are located. The CPUC decision requires the utilities to identify under-resourced and climate-vulnerable communities in their service territories, conduct outreach to understand these communities’ energy related needs in the face of climate change, and then determine how to best meet these needs.
All Californians must be able to cool their homes, to protect themselves from unhealthy heat, while keeping their electricity bills affordable. Energy efficiency retrofits, such as better insulation, windows, and air sealing, can make a home more resistant to a heat wave; energy efficient heat pumps can then cool these homes efficiently. California energy utilities should offer better targeted energy efficiency programs that serve communities vulnerable to heat so that they can weather heat waves affordably.
Climate change also impacts the amount of electricity renewables produce and when they produce this electricity. For example, extreme heat reduces the efficiency of solar panels and changing rain patterns affect how much hydroelectric power is available at any given time. These changes in electricity production patterns and demand, both caused by the climate crisis, can compound to make it harder to serve California’s clean energy needs.
Last week’s heat wave across the West caused a power shortage in California when electricity demand due to increased cooling needs temporarily exceeded available supply. California couldn’t look to its neighbors to import electricity to help meet that demand because all of California’s neighboring states were resource constrained as well. Extreme heat days have already increased across California and heat waves are expected to get longer, more frequent, and more severe as the climate changes.
In a similar vein, Seattle City Light’s power planners recently found that climate change was causing their customers’ electricity demand to increase in the summer and their hydropower availability to decrease. Pacific Northwesterners now need more cooling to cope with hotter summers, while decreasing summer rain means less available hydropower. Seattle City Light must now plan to meet this increased demand through energy efficiency and renewable energy to avoid relying on fossil generation and comply with Washington’s carbon reduction goals.
Planning that accounts for climate change’s impact on energy demand and renewable energy supply, will better prepare utilities and grid operators across the West to deal with these extreme weather events while complying with their clean energy goals. In addition, the CPUC should further invest in energy efficiency and demand response which reduces electric demand in extreme heat events by reducing cooling energy use. Once this demand is well managed, then investing in the right mix of renewables and storage will ensure that the remaining demand is met cost-effectively.
To do so, the CPUC, the California Energy Commission, and utilities need to apply global climate models to understand how California’s climate will change through the next thirty years and the impact that change will have on energy demand and renewable energy supply. The CPUC can then figure out how much renewable energy supply California needs to reliably meet customer demand, even during extreme heat waves. These climate updated weather data will also give a more accurate view of future energy savings from weather dependent energy efficiency measures such as high efficiency cooling. The Northwest Power Council has already started a forward looking process to understand how climate change will impact energy efficiency, wind, and hydro energy availability, and how these changes in energy availability interact with climate change modified customer demand. The CPUC should follow suit.
Finally, climate change also impacts utility infrastructure. Recent wildfires in California, some of which were ignited when high voltage transmission lines interacted with dry vegetation, are a prominent example. Increasingly hotter and drier summers, again due to climate change, mean conditions conducive to wildfires, which are deadly and have an immense financial toll. Higher temperatures also impact the performance of electric transformers and substations; electricity losses from transmission and distribution cables increase as it gets hotter; sea level rise threatens substations near the coast; and climate change is expected to cause disruptions to and the need for repair of our state’s fossil gas infrastructure.
In most such instances, expensive repairs to utility infrastructure are required, leading to higher utility rates. Robust vulnerability assessments, as now required by the CPUC, will enable utilities to identify any existing infrastructure that is in danger of climate damage and take preemptive action to reduce risks. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has identified substations at risk from flooding and sea level rise and elevated them to minimize the risk of damage. This information will also help them build new infrastructure in ways that are more climate change resilient.
Climate-Adapted Grids Are Resilient, Dependable, And Affordable
The CPUC decision will go a long way toward making sure that our state’s energy utilities account for climate change in their planning and operations, develop climate resilient infrastructure, and better serve disadvantaged and climate vulnerable communities. A more resilient energy system is also more affordable because it minimizes the risk of climate damage, thereby reducing the costs for repairs and rebuilds that would be borne by Californians through their energy bills. Now, the CPUC needs to continue to integrate climate change into their planning and regulatory processes to make sure our energy system has all the tools it needs to predict and deal with extreme weather events driven by climate change.