Claim: Climate model determines future at-risk electrical grid failure areas

From DOE/OAK RIDGE NATIONAL LABORATORY and the “calculate the uncertainty of chaos” department

ORNL-led study analyzes electric grid vulnerabilities in extreme weather areas


A new ORNL-developed method pinpoints electrical service areas across the southern United States most vulnerable to climate change and predicted population growth, which could inform decision makers about future substation needs. CREDIT ORNL

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., July 29, 2016 – Climate and energy scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a new method to pinpoint which electrical service areas will be most vulnerable as populations grow and temperatures rise.

“For the first time, we were able to apply data at a high enough resolution to be relevant,” said ORNL’s Melissa Allen, co-author of “Impacts of Climate Change on Sub-regional Electricity Demand and Distribution in the Southern United States,” published in Nature Energy.

Allen and her team developed new algorithms that combine ORNL’s unique infrastructure and population datasets with high-resolution climate simulations run on the lab’s Titan supercomputer. The integrated approach identifies substations at the neighborhood level and determines their ability to handle additional demand based on predicted changes in climate and population.

The new, high-resolution capability can explore the interconnections in complex systems such as critical infrastructure and weather and determine potential pathways to adapt to future global change.

“These results can affect how future service areas are defined and where new substation capacity within the national grid may need to be located,” Allen said.

The authors note the study could inform city leaders and utilities when planning for adjustments or upgrades to existing infrastructure. The analysis also helps decision makers prepare resources needed for population movement in response to future extreme weather events, particularly in the Gulf Coast region. After a natural disaster, such as a high intensity hurricane, tens of thousands could be displaced to areas ill-equipped to handle the sudden influx of people for an unknown period of time.

For this analysis, the research team examined impacts of population and temperature changes through 2050 in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, but Allen said that the method could be applied to other regions.


Co-authors of the study were ORNL’s Mohammed Olama and Joshua Fu and Steven Fernandez from the University of Tennessee. Fu has a joint appointment at ORNL. This research was supported by DOE’s Office of Science. Additional power data for this project was provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

The Titan supercomputer is part of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, which is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

The paper:

Impacts of climate change on sub-regional electricity demand and distribution in the southern United States


High average temperatures lead to high regional electricity demand for cooling buildings, and large populations generally require more aggregate electricity than smaller ones do. Thus, future global climate and population changes will present regional infrastructure challenges regarding changing electricity demand. However, without spatially explicit representation of this demand or the ways in which it might change at the neighbourhood scale, it is difficult to determine which electricity service areas are most vulnerable and will be most affected by these changes. Here we show that detailed projections of changing local electricity demand patterns are viable and important for adaptation planning at the urban level in a changing climate. Employing high-resolution and spatially explicit tools, we find that electricity demand increases caused by temperature rise have the greatest impact over the next 40 years in areas serving small populations, and that large population influx stresses any affected service area, especially during peak demand.

93 thoughts on “Claim: Climate model determines future at-risk electrical grid failure areas

  1. So if I’m reading this correctly the the inputs to the predictive model are variables that tend to be estimated with a high degree of uncertainty or error? Brilliant!

    • Well it’s a bug country, so if you define the “target areas” large enough, sooner or later you’re bound to predict something.

      • Not to mention they can’t predict blackouts now so how can they predict them into the future

  2. The most significant factor to affect the grid that’s related to the climate is the false fear of CAGW that drives policy to put too much unreliable ‘renewable’ energy on the grid.

    • Amen. With CAGW, the greatest threat and risk is political pushed by liberal, greenie groups and politicians. They seem to think anything is possible if you wish hard enough and provide enough money taken from the producers.

    • When you rely on wind and solar you don’t need complicated mathematical formulas to predict the failure of supply vs demand.

      • Wait for it, wait for it! The subject is the grid so it is just a matter of time before wind and solar is blamed for a problem we do not have.
        Gosh Bill is being an idiot a natural talent or do you have to work at it?

      • I’m with you, Bill. Of course they’ll blame global warming. First they break the system, then blame global warming and fossil fuel – and human achievement of course. Wind and solar are a waste of space, already bringing in a lot of problems, but no, GangGreen will never admit it. It’ll be CO2 instead and global warming!

      • RE: Comment from Retired Kit P 30 JUL @ 4:18 pm: If your snarky comment is designed to redirect the comments of this post to the subject of the capabilities of the grid to handle intermittent power sources, let me try and add a bit to that attempt.
        If I am tracking correctly, with the Progressive ‘given’ that CO2 is harmful, and ‘our society as a whole’ must therefore reduce and/or eliminate societal emission of the gas via the reduction, curtailment, or elimination of everyday, productive activities associated with our wanton, capitalistic ways that have emitted or may emit CO2 – then, the ‘logical’ way forward (in the Progressive mindset) is for society to supplant (via abnormal methods of change not based upon a capitalistic approach utilizing efficiencies, innovation, and simple supply-and-demand, but via governmental regulatory intrusions and leadership fiat) efficient power production sources that rely upon solid and liquid hydrocarbon-based fuels with intermittent and inefficient solar panels and wind generators. Am I tracking so far?
        In the next step of the Proggy energy future utopia, the existing electrical power distribution grid(s) and the various operators of same, are at a constant edge of trip where/when the intermittent power generating sources cannot adequately supply the power demanded based upon known curves; or, the intermittent sources supply too much power at low demand intervals. Am I still tracking the basics? Please provide snark-less guidance if I am off track in this. I can take it.
        From what I am deducing by your comment and that which you may have been alluding (again, please use this venue provided by Mr. Watts to respond if I am not following you) was that the ‘power problem’ is not the issues with electrical energy supplied by intermittent sources, but that it is the users of the power – the everyday consumers such as aluminum producers (that’s aluminium for some), industry in general, and the lowly citizen in the sub-urbs wallowing in their McMansions with (Gasp! The Horror!) air conditioning running constantly – these end users are the ‘problem’. These end-users as a whole need to be controlled, and must be persuaded – by hook or by crook – to use the intermittent power as it is available, not when or how they want it. Still tracking, am I?
        Enter: Smart Grid (or variants of same). Just home from work, want to run the A/C, do a load of soiled clothing, run the dishwasher, take a hot shower, flip on a light switch? Need to produce a widget, run the gantry crane, create productive products for sale (this is what us Capitalists call ‘production for commerce’)? Sorry, buddy, not your designated interval to use all of that power. Smart Grid necessitates spreading those activities out over time, effectively removing choice from the power users. Am I catching your drift???
        Or – could a better way forward be, to merely apply known technologies to existing power generation, to remove particulates and aerosols down to levels that are achievable through Best Available Control Technology, while striving (through invention and innovation) to continue to provide inexpensive, readily-available electricity through the existing grid technology? And allowing innovation and invention to enhance and alter our power generation and distribution – sans governmental requirements and mandates to utilize intermittent power generating sources, while at the same time standing up a beneficial gas (essential to all respiration/transpiration therefore life on earth) as a demon to be ostracized and removed from all society?
        Have I been reading a Science Fiction novel, or is this whole bizarre situation our current reality??
        Provided as food for continued thought,

  3. If the grid was originally designed to handle a small number of large inputs sources (hydroelectric, nuclear, coal/natgas power stations), I think I’d be more worried about the grid becoming compromised by a multitude of variable inputs from industrial wind farms and large and small solar panel installations.

  4. Do these guys think the utilities are just standing around with their hands in their pockets waiting for the geniuses at ORNL to grace them with their wisdom? And running a stable grid is more about weather than climate. So it appears this study is more about weather, like hurricanes and such, which the climate models have been hugely successful in predicting /sarc.

    • In the US we regularly look out to 10 years and plan the system to support forecast generation and loads across a variety of scenarios. The load forecast would contain the anticipated weather impacts upon the load. Generally there are relates. but distinct energy and demand forecasts. Transmission planning is driven by the peak demand forecasts.
      You could have a reliability problem if the demand forecast did not incorporate expected weather/climate changes. But if those are forecast -the grid should be enhanced to meet anticipate load conditions. Perhaps they are saying their should be greater weather variability and that will make the peak demand more uncertain. If that’s the case – it should not necessarily mean lower reliability, it could instead mean higher grid costs. We can plan for changing weather and climate. Grids can be reliable in very cold or very hot weather.
      My perspectives on Oak Ridge and NREL have changed for the worse over the years.

  5. So basically these guys are planning for future demand for resources pretty much what goes on in every county/State/Country around the world? Except these guys attach a “Global
    Warming” tag. I think I would trust the normal
    Town planners. That’s what they do for a living.

  6. The greatest threat to our archaic electrical grid is the electrically-charged vehicles, all of them.
    As the grid approaches meltdown, as Mom cooks dinner and the AC is running full bore, imagine what 10 million electric cars being plugged in to their 40KW fast chargers will do to us. Greens will never understand logic, only their green religions.

    • I wouldn’t worry about that. BEVs are obsolete technology that is being kept alive as a political fad. BEVs are and always will be niche vehicles.

    • Battery electric vehicles will help not hinder the grid. Today’s BEVs do most charging overnight (my car is set to start charging at 1:00 a.m. when the rate is cheaper) Tomorrow’s have the potential to help by providing a vast buffer: with the right electronics and commercial agreements/incentives, they can be told to charge as fast as they like when power is plentiful and throttle back, or even give a bit back, when there is a surge in demand.
      And Walter, they are not obsolete. If you have ever driven a good one you will never want to go back to an oil burner. The throttle response of a BEV from standstill is amazing. Besides, oil burners are noisy and choke city streets with nitrous oxides, particulates and other unpleasantness that have nothing whatever to do with CO2 or climate.

      • Can you tow my 3-horse slant load goose-neck with a 12′ short wall living space with your battery power? Your world may not actually be the status quo.

      • And how long do you think the power will stay cheap at night if a couple of million Teslas start sucking 50 Amps each?
        “and throttle back, or even give a bit back, when there is a surge in demand”
        Might be a bit awkward coming out in the morning and finding the battery empty because the wind died away during the night.
        I do admit that most of the nasties liberated when mining materials for the BEV have hitherto been kept at a safe distance from the BEV owners, but will that last?

      • But, just to let you know I’m not anti towards them, electric side-by-side four wheelers are great for deer hunting. the deer have not learned to recognise the quieter sound of them yet. Too bad they are prohibitively more expensive than gas models.

      • Oh and by the way, can you sleep in your BEV while on the interstate and your car trickle charges due to heavy grid demand coupled with a multitude of folks doing the same thing at every charger connected to the (promised) PV-paved interstate?

      • Maybe electric cars will become more practical if someone like Nikola Tesla comes along again.

      • Larry is idiot #4 for worrying about BEV as Walter points out.
        John, idiot #5, is even a bigger fool for buying a BEV and thinking anyone here would believe his BS.
        Our cities no longer have air pollution problems ( It was accomplished without BEV. Storing electricity is very bad for the environment.

      • John Hardy commented: “….Battery electric vehicles will help not hinder the grid…”
        Too much EV kool aid? How can added use of the grid help it? EVs will utilize the grid more and not overload it if done properly but it won’t “help” it. The extra use will lead to more failures….it’s just a matter of use X time. If the grid depends on “renewable energy” (like fossil fuels are not?) what happens when the sun don’t shine where the wind stopped blowing….think reliability? I agree EVs seem to be a more preferable means of transportation in high density short trip situations and they offer less pollution at the usage point. Just the noise reduction alone would be wildly beneficial to Tokyo or New York City. But it cost hidden money….read ‘taxes’… to make EVs attractive/affordable to more users.

      • This discussion is veering off topic and getting acrimonius (I am not keen on being called an idiot) so this will be my last contribution. Uk average mileage per car per day is currently 21 miles. This is about 5-7 kw hours i.e. about 6-8 minutes at your 50 kw. Fast charge is an edge case. As for all the other things they will come. Don’t throw EVs out with the greenwash bathwater

      • It is true that in their future LaLa Land the batteries in the EVs that are connected to the grid will become part of the power supply helping to cover the shortfall of generated power. I hope they consider the thought that on a cold still winter morning what happens if the morning surge as kettles are boiled, water heated, heating comes on (all electric of course as gas is banned) when you go out to your EV the battery is so weak the car won’t go. If there was any problem with using fossil fuels, exploring these ideas would make sense – but there isn’t and they don’t.
        ‘..oil burners are noisy…’ They certainly are. Love the sound of a V8 or V12, and when it comes to motorcycles you can’t beat a v-twin, or a single, and perhaps the wail of a triple.

      • [just an aside] A couple years ago ARPA-E was fiddling with the idea of liquid electrode batteries, where “recharge” becomes a pumped exchange of your depleted electrode with fresh.
        “Positive and negative electrode materials would be stored in separate tanks, rather than inside the same battery cell as in conventional batteries. This could prevent the short circuits and overheating that can cause lithium-ion batteries to catch fire.”
        While any such solution would be slow to implement… it holds promise. Actual charging of electrolyte would take place in presumably-hardened facilities that can use heavy blast proof enclosures, direct mains connections and possible use high voltages and currents to efficiently do the job, resulting in greater end to end efficiency… while making the actual replenishing safer.
        Just don’t pump positive fluid into the negative tank. And Verse visa.

  7. “For the first time, we were able to apply data at a high enough resolution to be relevant,”
    Nope. You’re not relevant.
    ‘For this analysis, the research team examined impacts of population and temperature changes through 2050 in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, but Allen said that the method could be applied to other regions.’
    This represents a dramatic increase in the power of models. Now, not only do they know the temperatures in 2050, they know the populations!
    ‘Mazin’ what science can do.

  8. Am I to assume that the “new algorithms” allow them to predict local, diurnal high-temperatures, instead of averages, so that peak A/C loads can be anticipated properly? Apparently not because the lead sentence in the abstract says, “High AVERAGE temperatures lead to high regional electricity demand…” How do they handle the intractable problem of energy exchange in clouds? Is that their contribution to state-of-the-art?

  9. You don’t need models to predict that the areas most prone to grid failure will be the parts that rely the most on wind and solar… who go I give my address to to get the grant money?

  10. Heck, if you want to know the areas most likely to be affected by electricity supply issues, just mark down those areas with the most renewable energy.

  11. Grid blackouts pose a far greater risk to people in Winter. Modern homes rely on electric power to run the controls for furnaces, central heat, etc.
    Within the past 3 years, the NE US has come uncomfortably close to Winter grid blackout conditions on multiple occasions.

  12. When it gets cold and people need heat all the new units will be in the wrong places.
    Not that I expect a cold spell any time soon. Still, I have lots of firewood — from trees killed via the Snag Canyon wildfire 2 years ago, August.

    • John F. Hultquist ==> Here in the Central Hudson Valley of New York State, my three sons heat all winter with firewood split from standing-dead ash killed by the ash borer — hard, dry, and hotter than heck. There is a seemingly endless supply.

      • idiot #9! Kip I have a big problems with idiots heating with wood because sooner or later they will burn down the house with the children inside.
        There is not an endless supply for NYC.

      • Getting a bit frumpy in retirement, Kit? Not all those who heat with wood are idiots. Some folks employ chimney sweeps regularly or burn their wood in exterior stoves. You know, the kind that are outside of the house and can’t conceivably catch the house afire. In my experience, the only “idiots who sooner or later burn their house” are the urbanites who occasionally use their fireplace for the “ambiance” and never think to check the flu first.

      • Reply to Retired Kit P ==> Personally, I don’t think idiots should even be allowed to play with matches.
        Heating with properly installed modern wood burning stoves is at least traditional here in the Northeast, and for many, a reasonable option to burning imported oil or expensive propane. Nearly all that heat with wood do so as primary heating and have oil or gas or electric backup systems — many with oil, gas, electric have wood burning stoves as a backup for the times those systems fail.
        Very few homes that seriously heat with wood have fires related to their wood stoves. The biggest problem are homeowners who seldom use their fireplaces, never check their chimneys, and fire up the fireplace or once-in-a-while wood stove at the start of the season, igniting various animal nests and the like, setting their homes on fire. Add to that the foolish who install wood stoves without regard to fire safety standards.
        Modern dual-walled, insulated stainless steel chimneys are far safer than fire-brick lined chimneys.

      • Retired Kit P: Your opinion of human beings is most telling. If parents are not bright enough not to burn the house down, what makes you think they are bright enough to prevent any other accidents? You know, like smoking and burning the house down. Or leaving the kids home alone and the kids burn the house down. Or lock one of the smaller kids in the oven and turn it on self-cleaning (reported to have actually happened). Nothing. Parents who are clueless are dangerous no matter how hard you try to keep them from being so.
        The most common cause of fires from woodburning where I live is people putting ashes in a paper bag and setting them on the porch. I’m sure all stoves come with explicit instructions to NOT do that. Failure to follow instructions can be fatal. Deal with it.

  13. The stability of grid electricity supply is largely dependent on how humans construct and maintain said grid, and the power suppliers feeding into that grid. Not by small environmental temperature fluctuations occurring over a period of many decades.
    If someone said that cell-phone service was more affected by small environmental temperature fluctuations occurring over a period of many decades than it was affected by the the construction and maintenance of said cell-phone masts, then they would be laughed off the planet.
    The twaddle green-speakers are allowed to get away with never ceases to amaze me.

  14. Funny story – we here in New Hampshire recently had wide-spread wind storms, resulting in many thousands being without power for two days or more (ours was out for 2 1/2 days). The wind storms were rather freakish, and nothing, certainly no climate models could have predicted them. Here’s the problem; we’ve actually become more wooded over the last century, mainly due to farm land being abandoned, and allowed to revert back to forest. We’ve also become more populous, with more roads and more electric lines. So we now have lots of trees, and many in the vicinity of power lines. What to do? People like their trees. I’ve heard the suggestion of burying the power lines, but that would be a monumental task, costing many $billions, and would take decades.

    • In Sweden we’re doing just that, and have been working on it for a couple of decades. It does pay in the long run through cheaper maintenance. However, it might not be a good idea in California. Finding and repairing breaks underground after a major earthquake won’t be easy. On the other hand in the South-east I think the cost would probably be paid off after one hurricane.

  15. The models predict which electrical grids will be sabotaged due to the wars caused by global warming. It’s all very scientific.

  16. Perhaps this model can be used to to design a grid for the third world countries, which is failure resistant and delivers power most efficiently from their state-of-the-art scrubber-equipped coal plants we western societies construct to build affluence and reverse the overpopulation trends there.
    Yes, that’s just a dream – in one long-ass sentence.

  17. Now they can blame the climate (weather) for their poor planning and maintenance. They even have a supercomputer to prove it.
    In the real world i believe peoble move faster around than the climate and not because of any climate changes.

  18. Perhaps we should consider that user-end supplementary energy reduces the load on the grid.
    Solar and wind supplying the grid only leads to dispatching chaos, solar and wind supplementing at the consumer end relieves some load.
    Yes my utterance is politically incorrect, but common sense based.

  19. Not only are they speculating on future climate, but also future population growths and shifts. No matter how good their models are, or how large the computing resource, they are playing a fools game. Utilities have been playing this game for generations. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes not. There is still a good amount or speculation in these forecasts.

  20. Power supplies are usually stable either side of summer and winter , here in oz most blackouts are in summer more so when we get days over 40 and a few in a row , more severe storms in southern oz usually around summer .
    Not sure if a computer game is needed to work all this out !

  21. Where’s the heat?
    So many graphs show an increasing AVERAGE trend in temperatures just like in another thread today for temperatures in the Arctic by DMI. But it appears that the high temperatures are flat or declining and the low temperatures are less cold resulting in an average upward trend. There are many, many similar temperature records.
    So, where is the “heat” coming from in these models? Confirmation bias?

  22. Bob is correct; electric utilities have been putting their businesses on the line for decades forecasting and building facilities for loads. As someone who has been responsible for planning and building electric facilities from regional down to neighborhood levels, I believe that no responsible electric utility would even consider planning any generation, transmission or distribution facilities based on government “scientists” playing with their DOE supercomputer to speculate as to temperatures and population densities down to the local level decades in the future. In the real world people lose their jobs over such stupid games.
    Dave Fair

  23. “For this analysis, the research team examined impacts … through 2050.” That word “research.” It does not mean what they think it means. This is projection based on projection.

    • He’s been like this for a little while now and getting worse. I used to read his comments but I no longer bother, they are purely bad-tempered rants with no logic in them. He’s also gone from attacking one or two at a time to attacking just about everybody over any stupid thing he can find. He has serious attitude problems and no patience with anyone.
      Marcus? I don’t understand your link. Could you clarify?

    • I was a target of one of Retired Kit P’s insult campaigns only two days back.
      His comments have been eviscerated of actual content and now contain only anger and impatience.
      Unfortunately, when a person merely insults other commenters but makes no substantial points and provides no supporting evidence or alternative critique it is impossible to ascertain what world view that person has.
      With no counter logic or evidence provided, I could not determine what it was about my comments that Kit P was criticizing. At least now, from this thread I have determined that he is running a committed vendetta against domestic wood stove use.
      But, how do we explain the descent into pure vitriol?
      Hypoglycemia perhaps or a stroke, brain tumour or neurological degeneration?
      These things happen. And if any of the above then he has my sympathy.
      But, if these are not the explanation then he needs to be told that he is now trolling internet threads with contentless banality and adding nothing to the discussion beyond creating bad feelings.
      Obviously a person who trolls down a thread calling most contributors an “idiot” is in danger of making themselves look like the idiot.
      Kit P: You are wasting your time and everyone elses by mindlessly attacking strangers on the internet.
      Do you have nothing better to do with your days?
      Has it really come to this?
      Why not take up a hobby. Perhaps one where you can share and be appreciated for your engineering skills.
      Trolling is for teenagers who have minimal information and maximal rage.
      Amd quit freaking out about the dangers of woodburning stoves.
      I love my wood burning stove. I’ve used several of them for several decades with zero incidents. I’m aware of the small risk and I choose to take it. That doesn’t make me an idiot.

  24. A bit off subject, but I had a question for power engineers who might be keeping up with Solid Oxide Fuel Cells. My understanding is that these cells can use the fuels we already have in abundance and that they have a maximum theoretical overall efficiency (fuel to usable power) of 60%, with byproducts of CO2 and water. How does this compare with fuel-to-wallplug efficiencies for the power grid, and—if they are comparable in efficiency—wouldn’t it make sense to distribute power generation (perhaps even to the housing unit level) and to move away from widely distributed (and vulnerable to sabotage) power grids?
    On the subject of predicted problems (there certainly are no shortage of these, are there?) I’m convinced that a determined modeler can create virtually any prediction desired, especially given that the assumptions coded in come from the modeler to begin with.

  25. The expected fraction of a degree rse in temperatures in most places, even if the worst scenario of the IPCC should come to pass – courtesy of the sun of course – the increase in the use of air conditioning will be impossible to measure. However, population growth, which has little to do with the suggested warming could be a significant factor,but very hard to predict using climate models.

  26. “The new, high-resolution capability can explore the interconnections in complex systems such as critical infrastructure and weather and determine potential pathways to adapt to future global change.”
    Engineers in the power industry have been analyzing the grid for decades to identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities, particularly to point failures that may lead to cascading collapses such as the 1965 New England blackout.
    Compared to the 1965 event, the later ‘massive blackouts’ such as 1977 and 2003 have been limited in scope and duration.
    Hacker attacks on the power grid are also being considered, with improved cybersecurity measures being put in place continually.
    To be effective a hacker attack would have to target several related locations effectively and simultaneously – not an easy task when the IP addresses of the locations say nothing about their interconnectivity.

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