Today’s unusual weather phenomena tell us that the climate is changing. While mitigation is important, experts agree that adaptation is necessary to adjust to the various effects of the planet’s evolution. That includes adapting power grids.
Severe, atypical weather events are on the rise. Floods, hurricanes, heat waves and extreme cold spells are becoming more frequent. According to the World Bank, global mean warming is 0.8 °C above pre industrial levels; oceans are acidifying; sea levels are rising at 3.2 cm per decade and an exceptional number of extreme heat waves have occurred in the last 10 years. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration adds: “We have entered uncharted climate territory. We must accelerate the pace of adaptation to achieve a more sustainable planet.”
Dr Lawrence Jones, who leads Alstom Grid’s Utility Innovations and Infrastructure Resilience activities in North America, explains the potential impacts of a changing global climate on the power grid infrastructure: “The grid as we know it today was not designed for big temperature swings. So, the electric network is affected by increasingly extreme temperatures that may degrade the equipment’s thermal and physical properties and reduce it’s lifespan. As the Earth heats up, the resistivity of the soil can change and some underground devices could malfunction, leading to problems in the grid’s protection systems. Simultaneously, an excess of moisture in some regions could have a serious impact on the dielectric properties of underground equipment.
The increase in severe weather events will affect major portions of the electricity networks in different ways. For example, we are already beginning to see an impact on load patterns. Peak loads might change or multiple peaks could occur within a day, resulting in erratic utilisation of energy resources. We saw the occurrences of multiple peaks in parts of the US during the polar vortex earlier this year.
The solution? A smarter and resilient grid
A smarter, resilient grid can play a major role in adapting to climate change. It can do so in two fundamental ways – the physical approach and the cyber approach. The physical side involves the introduction of new technologies and materials into the grid infrastructure. “For example, the application of nanotechnology can create new materials through the manipulation of their atomic structure with better physical properties, making them more robust and more efficient,” notes Dr Jones, who also serves on Alstom Grid’s global business development team for smart grid and smart cities consulting. “And equipment made with grapheme, a revolutionary and extremely hard material, can make it less vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. In this way, material science can make a significant contribution to grid resilience. So, too, can superconductors, this can not only push more electrons down the wires, but can be used to design better power electronics for HVDC. The grid’s adaptation to climate change may also be enhanced by wireless sensor networks, enabling the real-time collection of data in the grid as well as its surroundings.”