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Climate Action Benefits Report

Climate Action Benefits: Electricity

Electricity is an essential element of modern life. It lights and cools our homes, powers our computers, supports the production of goods and services, and enables critical infrastructure services such as water treatment and telecommunications. The generation of electricity in the U.S., most of which comes from fossil fuels, also contributes to climate change, accounting for approximately 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.1 

How is the energy sector vulnerable to climate change?

Climate change has implications for electricity production, distribution, and use.2 For example, coastal electricity infrastructure, such as power plants and substations, are vulnerable to storm surge and wind damage. Elevated temperatures diminish thermal power plant efficiency and capacity, and can reduce the capacity of transmission lines. In addition, effects on water supply alter the quantity and temperature of cooling water available for thermoelectric generation.3 On the demand side, warmer winters decrease the demand for heating. However, this reduction is smaller than the increase in electricity demand for cooling due to higher summer temperatures. Across the U.S., higher minimum temperatures increase the number of days in a year when air conditioning is needed, and higher maximum temperatures increase the peak electricity demand, further stressing our aging power grid.

What does CIRA cover?

Numerous studies highlight the potential for emission reductions in the electricity sector, yet fewer studies have explored the physical, operational, and economic impacts of a changing climate on this sector. CIRA assesses the impacts of rising temperatures on electricity demand, system costs, and the generation mix needed to meet increasing demand across the contiguous U.S. through 2050.4 Importantly, impacts to the demand and supply of other energy sources (e.g., fuel for transportation) are not estimated. Also, the electricity supply analysis does not include the effects of climate change on hydropower and water availability for thermoelectric power generation. Additional work is necessary to further evaluate climate change impacts on electricity supply, particularly the effects of extreme heat events and storm damage on capacity and reliability. Finally, future work to improve connectivity between the CIRA electricity, water, and agriculture analyses will aid in better understanding potential cross-sector impacts.