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New Method to Make Energy Systems More Resilient

Predictions have been made that extreme weather events such as heatwaves, severe drought, and storms will become more prevalent and have already started to occur. The less investigated part is their effect on energy systems and how communities can prevent costly disruptions like partial or total blackouts.

Climate variability could create a gap between total energy generation and demand—a situation that could lead to blackouts. Image Credit: iStock/Tomwang112.

At present, an international team of researchers has proposed a new optimization methodology for developing climate-resilient energy systems and to empower communities to fulfill future energy needs in the wake of weather and climate variability. The study outcomes were recently reported in Nature Energy.

On one side is energy demand—there are different types of building needs, such as heating, cooling, and lighting. Because of long-term climate change and short-term extreme weather events, the outdoor environment changes, which leads to changes in building energy demand.

Tianzhen Hong, Computational Scientist, Berkeley Lab

Hong added, “On the other side, climate can also influence energy supply, such as power generation from hydro, solar and wind turbines. Those could also change because of weather conditions.”

The team worked with colleagues from Sweden, Switzerland, and Australia and was headed by a researcher from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to develop a stochastic-robust optimization technique for measuring the impacts and using the data to design climate-resilient energy systems. In general, stochastic optimization methods are used when variables are uncertain or random.

Energy systems are built to operate for 30 or more years. Current practice is just to assume typical weather conditions today; urban planners and designers don’t commonly factor in future uncertainties. There is a lot of uncertainty around future climate and weather.

Tianzhen Hong, Computational Scientist, Berkeley Lab

Hong helped design the study and is a computational scientist who leads multi-scale energy modeling and simulation at Berkeley Lab.

As reported in the study, “energy systems” offer energy requirements, and at times energy storage, to a group of buildings. The supplied energy could include electricity or gas from renewable or traditional sources. Although such community energy systems are not so common in the United States, they may be available on the campuses of certain universities or in business parks.

The team studied several different scenarios for 30 Swedish cities. Under certain scenarios, it was found that in some cities, the energy systems would be unable to produce sufficient energy. Specifically, climate variability could lead to a 16% decline in power supply reliability and a 34% gap between total energy generation and demand—a condition that could result in blackouts.

We observed that current energy systems are designed in a way that makes them highly susceptible to extreme weather events such as storms and heat waves. We also found that climate and weather variability will result in significant fluctuations in renewable power being fed into electric grids as well as energy demand. This will make it difficult to match the energy demand and power generation. Dealing with the effects of climate change is going to prove harder than we previously thought.

Dasun Perera, Study Lead Author and Scientist, Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory, EPFL

According to the researchers, 3.5 billion people live in urban areas, using two-thirds of global energy, and it has been predicted that by 2050, urban areas would hold over two-thirds of the world’s population. “Distributed energy systems that support the integration of renewable energy technologies will support the energy transition in the urban context and play a vital role in climate change adaptation and mitigation,” they added.

Hong is the head of an urban science research group at Berkeley Lab that investigates energy and environmental issues at the city scale. The group is part of Berkeley Lab’s Building Technology and Urban Systems Division, which for several decades has led research into boosting energy efficiency in the built environment.


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