Energy and Climate Change: The Future of Energy in the US

Americans have come to rely on a diverse and abundant energy system, one that provides a continuous supply of energy with few interruptions. However, climate change is projected to play a big part in changing the supply, production, and demand for energy. Increases in temperature will see an increase in energy used for cooling, while projected increases in the occurrence of hurricanes, floods, tornados, and other extreme weather events will continue to have a significant effect on the infrastructure of power grids and energy delivery systems. Drought and water shortages are already beginning to affect energy production and supply. In the Northeast, mild winter temperatures prior to the winter of 2013 - 2014 had decreased energy demands for heat, but they did not fully offset increased demands for cooling, and the regionally harsher winter of 2013 - 2014 saw increased demands for heating fuels. These disruptions affect us both locally and nationally, are diverse in nature, and will require equally diverse solutions.

See Chapter 9: Climate for more information about climate change.

Energy is a commodity, and supply and demand around the world will also affect the US energy system. As the global population grows and industrialization of the world continues, demand for energy will increase even further as resources are depleted. These factors could significantly affect US energy costs through competition for imported and exported energy products. Mediation of our energy production could have a huge positive impact on climate change. Unfortunately, there is no energy production system or source currently available that is truly sustainable. All forms of energy have negative impacts on the environment, as do many of the ways in which we use them.

Until we have a sustainable means of producing and delivering energy, we need to consider which means of energy production and transport make the least impact; we are faced with a sort of “energy triage.” The answer to this problem will be multifaceted, depending in large part on what energy resources and delivery methods are available in each part of the US. The sources of energy that provide the least impact for the best price in the West are probably not the same in other areas.

Adaptation—changing our habits of energy use and delivery—can also make it easier for our existing energy infrastructure to adjust to the needs brought on by climate change. Investing in adaptation can pay off in the short term by reducing risks and vulnerabilities, thus minimizing future risks. Increasing sustainable energy practices (including harvesting and production) and improving infrastructure and delivery methods can go a long way toward not only decreasing the effects of climate change, but also our energy security.

Some of these changes are grounded in the development of new technologies for energy production and energy efficiency; others may be related to changes in behavior. These changes in technology and behavior may go hand in hand; roughly 2% of electricity production now goes to data centers, for example, a use that did not exist in 1985. Additionally, the Internet is rapidly changing other ways we use energy, allowing us to telecommute and changing the way we shop.

In closing, some key points to keep in mind regarding the future of energy are:

  1. Extreme weather events are affecting energy production and delivery facilities, causing supply disruptions of varying lengths and magnitudes and affecting other infrastructure that depends on energy supply. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are expected to increase.
  2. Higher summer temperatures are likely to increase electricity use, causing higher summer peak loads, while warmer winters are likely to decrease energy demands for heating. Net energy use is projected to increase as rising demands for cooling outpace declining heating energy demands.
  3. Both episodic and long-lasting changes in water availability will constrain different forms of energy production.
  4. In the longer term, sea level rise will affect coastal facilities and infrastructure on which many energy systems, markets, and consumers depend.
  5. As we invest in new energy technologies, future energy systems will differ from the present in uncertain ways. Depending on the way in which our energy system changes, climate change will introduce both new risks and new opportunities.