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Climate crisis threatens energy supply

February 21, 2022

Whether it's heat or heavy rain, the consequences of climate change are putting our energy security at risk. Oil, gas and nuclear energy are particularly vulnerable. So what does that mean for our future?

A large lightening bolt in the sky above a power station
More extreme weather will increasingly threaten energy infrastructure Image: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

At the end of January, torrential rains poured over parts of the South American state of Ecuador. As a result, an oil pipeline in the eastern province of Napo in the Amazon region was severely damaged — thousands of liters of oil began to leak out and contaminate the surrounding soil.

"The accident is a disaster for the environment," Hans-Joseph Fell, the founder of Energy Watch Group, which is investigating a global transition to renewable energies, told DW. "The consequences of climate change, such as heavy rainfall or drought, have a very strong influence on the availability of conventional energy."

Conventional energy: Low resilience in extreme weather

Oil is particularly at risk, as the recent string of oil accidents shows. But it's not the only energy source impacted by the increasing number of extreme weather events. During hotter months, nuclear power plants sometimes have to be shut down because rivers are too warm to be used as cooling water.

Two people take samples from an oil-contaminated river in Piedra Fina, Ecuador
Around one million liters of oil leaked from a pipeline into the rainforest in EcuadorImage: Ecuador's Ministry of Environment/AFP

During the hot European summer in 2018, for example, France was forced to shut down four reactors, and the Grohnde Nuclear Power Plant in Germany almost followed suit. Nuclear power plants by the sea do not have this problem, but they in turn could be threatened by rising sea levels.

Extremely low water levels in the Rhine in 2018 also caused the price of heating oil to rise sharply. Like many other goods, it was no longer possible to simply transport the oil across the entire river by ship.

Extreme drought also severely damages hydropower facilities. This has global consequences. Following long periods of extreme heat in the summer of 2021, numerous reservoirs in the US and many parts of Latin America almost dried up. The hydropower plant by Lake Mead near Las Vegas produced a quarter less electricity than usual in July.

According to an analysis by the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne (EWI), lower levels of electricity generation from hydropower in Latin America led to high demand for liquefied natural gas from the US in 2021. The gas was sold on the American continent instead of to Europe, impacting the volume of gas available in Europe this winter.

Meanwhile, heavy rain and flooding in Indonesia, severe storms in Australia and the US, as well as flooding in China, meant less coal was mined in 2021, according to the study. As a result, demand for gas — and gas prices — have risen even further.

Flooding forces Indonesian villagers to flee

Financial sector invests in wind and solar power

"In contrast to fossil fuels, using wind and solar power to generate electricity is more resilient to weather extremes, and therefore more crisis-proof," said Tim Bachmann, who manages the clean technology fund at asset management company, DWS Group.

The decentralized generation of wind and solar energy has proven to be an advantage in extreme weather conditions, according to Bachmann.

"That's why many large companies in the US, including internet companies, carmakers and others, have signed long-term power contracts with wind and solar farm operators," he said.

There are also far fewer logistical problems to contend with, because the electricity is directly generated from the wind and sun. Coal, oil, gas or uranium on the other hand must first be transported to power plants, where they are converted into energy. And there are various risks inherent in even just transporting the fuels.

How climate-proof is wind power?

But what about the risks posed by extreme weather when it comes to wind and solar power — for example, when hurricanes barrel into wind farms?

Martin Dörenkämper, of the Site Assessment Department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy Systems (IWES), explained the importance of decentralized networks, so if turbines in the north have to go off the grid, those in other regions can compensate.

"Even in a strong winter storm, only the wind turbines at the heart of the storm need to be shut down, but not those at the edge of the wind field," he told DW, adding that modern wind turbines can withstand high speeds, and that engineers are currently working to equip them for winds of up to 200 kilometers per hour.

He says no other great climate change adaptation measures are necessary. In places where winters are becoming wetter as a result of global warming — such as in Scandinavia — the power plants must be heated to prevent ice from forming. During periods of heat, stronger cooling measures are necessary.

the wind power park La Venta in Oaxaca, Mexico
Wind power is inherently resilient to climate changeImage: COMISION FEDERAL DE ELECTRICIDAD/HANDOUT/dpa/picture alliance

Solar panels vs hailstones

The risks posed by the climate crisis also seem manageable when it comes to solar power, according to the latest findings. In order to withstand stronger storms, the substructures and frames of future plants would need to be reinforced, as well as the glass of the solar modules. That's according to Harry Wirth, who is responsible for photovoltaic modules and power plants at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE). And it's all technically feasible.

Wirth says solar power systems are also being prepared for stronger hailstorms. According to insurance company Munich Re, this risk has already significantly increased in Europe due to climate change.

"For this purpose, the modules are bombarded with artificial hail in the laboratory," he told DW. "Hailstones between 2.5 and five centimeters in diameter are used."

Heat-resistant, high-voltage lines in the works

Whether conventional or renewable energy, it has to be transported to where it is needed — be that to private households, municipalities or industrial companies. And that means the entire power grid must be able to withstand the risks of the climate crisis.

Mathias Fischer is the press spokesperson for electricity grid operators Tennet. The group operates the entire Dutch high-voltage grid and is the largest grid operator in Germany.

Infographic showing cost of electricity in the EU

"To make power grids fit for the challenges arising from the energy transition, we're increasingly relying on high-temperature conductor cables for electricity pylons," explained Fischer. "They can get hotter than conventional cables without bending." 

The sticking point of renewables: Stability and storage

"The biggest challenge for the industry during the energy transition is to keep the frequency of the power grid constant at 50 Hertz," said Fischer.

This is easier with conventional power plants, because they can always power up when electricity is needed and pause when there is already enough in the grid. But it becomes more complicated when dealing with many decentralized systems that generate different amounts of energy, depending on how much wind and sun is available.

This means grid expansion is essential in order to transport large amounts of offshore wind power to regions with high electricity demand. Storage possibilities for renewable energy would also need to be realized and built quickly, for example in the form of green hydrogen.

This can be converted into energy whenever electricity is needed. However, renewable electricity stored in hydrogen is also more susceptible to the consequences of climate change, with storms, floods and heatwaves all posing a threat to hydrogen tanks or pipelines.

This article was orignally published in German.

Portrait of a woman (Jeannette Cwienk) with blonde hair and wearing a scarf and gray blazer
Jeannette Cwienk Writer and editor with a focus on climate and environmental issues