Electric Utilities Face Difficulties Managing Climate Change Threats

Filed under: Business Sustainabilty | |

According to a new report released yesterday by IBM, nearly all electric utilities claim climate change is threatening power outages, higher costs and changes in usage as demand grows to power the world’s expanding cities.   Over ninety percent of global electric utilities that report climate change activity to the Carbon Disclosure Project recognized they are at risk from changes in climate and water availability, which are already adding stress to the sector. However, less than a third claimed to undertake any financial or quantified evaluation to the impact of climate change on their business.

The report, “Global Electric Utilities – The Adaptation Challenge,” suggests the energy industry is rapidly approaching a critical stage of development. As demand is growing from new requirements such as electric vehicles, increased cooling during warmer summer months and rapid urbanization, utilities need to attract new financial investment to grow existing capabilities and develop emerging technologies in a low carbon way.  Without correct adaptation measures built into business plans, climatic risks could impact a utility company’s financial and operational performance, potentially leading to additional operational and capital expenditure. Financial projections made today based on current life, performance and value of assets may not be robust, which could impact a utilities value and interest from investors.

While responding companies seem to have incorporated climate change in general into their governance structures, only a few electric utilities (6 percent) refer to adaptation directly as an integrated element of their governance, reporting and lobbying practices. Climate risks are managed by 48 percent  of those responding tot the survey,  however adaptation actions are generally isolated and rarely form part of climate risk management strategies.  Compared to identifying climate risks (93 percent), far fewer electric utilities report that they recognize the opportunities of changing climatic conditions (59 percent).

“Risk management and adaptation planning are crucial to business success as climate change is directly affecting the generation, transmission and consumption of electricity,” said Graham Butler, Utilities Sector Lead, IBM Global Business Services UK & Ireland, “The smart electricity company of the future needs to have a fully integrated approach to building resilience. Business leaders will need the ability to gather and mine vast amounts of operational information to make accurate, smarter decisions to face climate change successfully and profitably.”

Industry Challenges – Why adapt?

Many scientists report that climate change is underway and the direct effects of increasing global temperatures, such as changes in precipitation and rising sea levels, are becoming more evident. Climatic issues have the potential to impact how all major electric utilities operate, underpinning the world’s major cities, transport and water infrastructures, which are essential to the commercial world and the way we live.

See Investors Want More Disclosure of Climate Risk Data and Investors Are Paying Increased Attention To Climate Change

Key Challenges The Electricity Industry Faces Due To Environmental Change

1.  Impact of power outages: Outages caused by the weather can result in failure in the supply of power. Interruptions and longer term outages can cause major financial losses for utilities and the customers that depend on the service.

2. Increased demand from urbanization: The trend toward increasing urbanization is expected to be accelerated as people move from rural areas. Electricity companies will face major challenges in providing new generation capacity and supply reliability within urban areas to meet the increased demands from domestic customers.

3. Damage to operational performance: Extreme weather events and incremental change impact the bottom line of electric utilities by degrading site conditions, damaging assets, decreasing efficiencies of operations, reducing availability and quality of raw materials and natural resources. These events can also disrupt energy supplies which can then increase energy prices.

4. Stress on water resources: Changes to the weather and an increasing population is placing global fresh water resources under increasing stress. Less water, declining water quality, and growing water demand are creating immense challenges to the electricity sector which is a major user of water. Delivering and treating clean drinking water, combined with providing safe sewerage and waste water treatment systems to an increasing global urban population will create significant increases in the demand for electricity. The impacts of climate change will also increase the competition for water resources among the electricity sector and other users for example, agriculture, fisheries, drinking water, industry and natural habitats.

Drivers For Change – Legislation and Costs

As the impacts of climate change become more direct, governments are starting to resort to prescriptive regulation and statutory controls to ensure that electricity companies take appropriate action on climate change adaptation.  Early indications of action by governments are already evident.    The US Securities and Exchange Commission asks publicly-listed companies, including electric utilities, to disclose climate threats to their bottom lines in annual reporting. Voluntary agreements on climate risk disclosure have also been signed between electric utilities and governments, such as New York City.  In the United Kingdom the Climate Change Act 2008 gives the government an adaptation reporting power that requires electricity companies to assess and disclose the impacts climate change might have on their business.

The issue of cost is also an important factor. For example, operational costs could increase in response to changes in equipment efficiency under higher temperatures, lower air pressure and modified humidity. Changes in security and quality of water supplies used for cooling will also have significant cost implications for water-intensive thermoelectric generating facilities.

Due to the increasing legislation and cost implications stakeholders that include investors, lenders, insurers, market and financial analysts, governments and regulatory agencies, consumers, local communities and NGOs are already starting to place greater pressure on electricity companies to address climate change risks and opportunities. If plans for expansion are to be achieved, stakeholders and increased investment are crucial to the development of the global electricity industry.

John Firth, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, climate change adaptation specialists Acclimatise said: “The successful electricity companies of the future will be those that act now upon the clear signals that climate change is underway. They will have a fully integrated approach to the challenges of the energy revolution, reducing emissions and adapting to inevitable climatic change.”

Guide For Electric Utilities to Start Adapting To Climate Change

Acclimatise and IBM have jointly prepared a set of Prepare-Adapt questions to help electricity companies take informed steps towards building corporate resilience to inevitable climate change.

1. The first step is to assess the operational impacts across the business – focusing on assets located in areas and products that are sensitive to climate change.

2. The next step is to assess the benefits that can be realized from better managing the response to climate change. This includes judging how well structured the approach is for managing climate change while demonstrating that a climate business resilience plan is realistic and financially viable.

“The Electric Utilities sector is one of the most advanced in its understanding of climate change related impact to its operations, said Paul Dickinson, CEO, Carbon Disclosure Project. “The impact of a carbon price has driven awareness around mitigation. However it is also important that the industry focuses on adapting to climate change and issues including changes in water availability and extreme weather events. These all have an impact on the sector and those companies which plan ahead, will be the best positioned.”

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© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine, Monster.com, About.com Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine, HR.com, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.

  • http://www.pwr.co.uk Mike Parr

    Either the article or the report is talking garbage. IBM is an IT company – and any experience it might have with respect to the provision of power is limited to control systems (and I would suggest it is a minor player in that field). It is not possible to generalise with respect to power utilities since different locations face different issues. However, to “kill” one issue, a range of reports have found that in the time frame up to 2020 (and even there after) the charging requirements of electric vehicles will have almost no impact on power networks (in terms of demand). Taking another example, a recent European project found that a given distribution network could absorb up to 50% distirbuted RES.

    PWR’s suggestion is that IBM stick to what it knows – computers and leave power engineering to those that have some experience of it.