31 Oct 14

Adaptation: It’s not just for breakfast anymore!


Dear Mavens,

I keep hearing about adaptation but since I work on renewable energy, which is all about mitigation, I assume I’m doing my part. Am I deluding myself?


Don Quixote

Dear Windmill Man,

The Mavens have waxed nostalgic in the past about how mitigation and adaptation go together like love and marriage or a horse and carriage.

Generally it’s pretty clear to folks that there are limits to how much adaptation can help certain activities and structures withstand change in various locations, and that this requires we act on the mitigation side of the climate change solution equation if we want durable success. However, many folks skip over the fact that the very changes that come with climate change may also affect the new energy technologies that are put into place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Let us consider a few:

Wind1: You’ve probably noticed that wind comes and goes…unless you live on the Great Plains. While this is not generally a problem for wind generation installations, it can be if a location with ideal wind conditions for turbine siting becomes generally less windy or generally too windy. Turns out climate change can affect such patterns. This isn’t just a problem for placement of turbines; it is also a challenge for turbine design and operation. Additionally other changes in weather conditions (ice accumulation, increasing temperature, extreme events) can affect generation potential requiring changes in design, operation or siting. Therefore if you want good long-term energy production from a wind turbine, you’ll need to think about what future wind and weather conditions it might be seeing. You may also need to consider if site access may change due to climate change (think sea level rise or melting permafrost…or sea level rise over melting permafrost!).

Solar: Seems like climate change is unlikely to affect the sun (but maybe you don’t want to place bets on that yet). However, since good photovoltaic generation depends on clean panels, and clean panels require water, this can be a challenge in some regions. You’ll need to think about how to keep solar generation optimized. This might include evaluating the sustainability of water (now and over the lifetime of the installation) as part of your siting decisions. Additionally you might want to think about other changing uses in your siting location over time, especially if your neighbors have conflicting needs or if there are any threatened and endangered species that may be moving into the area.

Hydroelectric: As the current spate of droughts in the American west has reminded us, while water may be a renewable resource, sometimes it can take a darn long time to be renewed. Increased drought can limit the power generation potential of hydroelectric plants. Both increased drought and warmer air temperature can increase the pressure to keep more water flowing to maintain conditions for fish and other aquatic species, or other human uses. Conversely, the potential for more severe floods can increase pressure to keep water levels behind dams lower so they can absorb high-volume floods.

And, of course, you’ve got to consider how the renewable energy infrastructure you’re working on may influence the vulnerability of species, ecosystems, or human communities to the effects of climate change. Energy transmission corridors can limit the ability of some species to move through the landscape, potentially limiting their ability to respond successfully to climatic changes. Focusing only on centralized energy generation increases the vulnerability of those reliant on that energy to disruptions in generation or transmission caused by extreme weather (e.g., witness the effects of ice storms in the east), while focusing only on distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar) can leave users vulnerable to potential increased variability in local energy generation capabilities.

Clearly this not an exhaustive list of all renewable energy sources, but as you can see, they are not immune to the travails of climate change. So best for us to all remember that getting good long-term outcomes from our favorite renewable energy sources to help us reduce the rate and extent of climate change will require that we consider what the rate and extent of climate change might do to our favorite renewable energy sources. So don’t just think about mitigation separately from adaptation – think about them together!

And by all means, don’t stop using renewable energy sources because they might be vulnerable! Just think it through to help reduce their vulnerability and maximize their adaptability.

Renewably yours,

The Mavens

1Pryor, S.C. and R.J. Barthelmie 2013 Assessing the vulnerability of wind energy to climate change and extreme events. Climate Change 121:79-91.

Recommended Citation

Adaptation Mavens. (2014, October). Adaptation: It’s not just for breakfast anymore! [Web column]. Retrieved from CAKE (http://cakex.org/community/advice/adaptation-its-not-just-breakfast-anymore).