Extreme Weather, Extreme Measures: Designing for Failure

October 6, 2015 | 20:21
Extreme Weather, Extreme Measures: Designing for Failure
Extreme Weather, Extreme Measures: Designing for Failure
Hurricane Sandy caused a 3 day blackout in Manhattan. The rise of extreme weather events caused by climate change calls for a fundamental overhaul of energy systems. Instead of a fail-safe system engineered to resist shocks, it should be designed for quick recovery after a knock-out.

The rise of the global temperature causes an increase in the number of extreme weather events such as heat waves, unusual heavy rainfall and storms. The world faced 174 extreme weather events in 2014, the highest number since records began and over 4 times higher than 1980.

The impact of extreme weather on energy infrastructure can cause severe and prolonged system failures, both on the production and the demand side. A heatwave in 2009 forced France to shut down a third of its nuclear power capacity due to lack of cooling water. Heavy storms in Chile this March bringing down the equivalent of 7 years of rain in the span of 12 hours, knocked out electricity due to dam flooding and damage to transmission lines. A drought affecting hydropower plants in Zambia last June, cut the country's electricity generation by 25%. An example from the demand side is from 2012 when a huge surge in energy demand during a heatwave in India caused the largest electricity blackout in history, affecting 670 million people.

From fail-safe to safe-to-fail

These examples are from the report The Road to Resilience published by the World Energy Council (WEC), a multistakeholder organization promoting affordable, stable and sustainable energy. To make energy infrastructure resilient to withstand the impact of climate change, the WEC report advises a fundamental new approach to designing and building energy systems.

Energy systems are predominantly engineered on a fail-safe principle: systems are designed to withstand the impact of hazardous events. The WEC advises to move to a safe-fail approach, a system that is able to absorb impact: a smart and agile system build to respond to failure rather than prevent it.

The traditional fail-safe strategy has a “single-asset approach”. Each individual infrastructure is build to maximally resist the impact of harmful events. In this paradigm it is assumed risks are largely known and their impact can be calculated. The safe-fail strategy assumes “emerging and evolving risks”. Rather than preventing failure the system is prepared for it. It's build to absorb the effects of impact, get in control and quickly recover.

Christoph Frei, Secretary General of the WEC said: “At a time when energy systems are increasingly integrated, resilience is no longer only about returning single assets to full operation after a sudden event. When interdependent parts of a system are blacked out, the system can become deadlocked. As Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events have illustrated, re-starting of the entire system can be delayed by days if such parts cannot be restarted autonomously. The World Energy Council’s resilience project seeks to understand how entire energy systems can bounce back, and how they can prepare for future disruption and system stress.”

System changes

Preparing energy infrastructure for climate change is a daunting task. The move toward a safe-fail system will cost billions of dollars. That's money on top of the $48 trillion that needs to be pumped into the global energy system over the period to 2035 to supply the world's energy needs. Or $53 trillion if we want an energy system that supports limiting global warming to 2°C, estimates the International Energy Agency.

On top of that, the WEC report points out, the energy sector already has a hard time securing investments because of the economic slowdown and uncertainties on the energy markets. Therefore, the responsibility for making energy infrastructure more resilient should be supported by society at large. The WEC recommends governments, institutional investors and companies design financial instruments to secure investments in energy infrastructure, so engineers can build systems that can graciously fail.

Image: Flooding in downtown Nashville, Tennessee in May 2010. By Kaldari, public domain.
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