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Are we building the electricity system of the future?

12 January 2024, Mercedes Vázquez Miranda

 Are we building the electricity system of the future? 

“Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks” “People’s health, lives, and livelihoods, as well as property and critical infrastructure, including energy and transportation systems, are being increasingly adversely affected by hazards from heatwaves, storms, drought and flooding as well as slow-onset changes, including sea level rise”.


Scientists are clear in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the AR6 finished in 2023, even more as they were in the previous ones.


According to scientific evidence, global temperatures will continue to rise and adverse impacts from climate change will intensify. These projections are broadly explained in the AR6 report, considering different scenarios. Even if the global community were to succeed in implementing actions that would limit global warming to 1.5, in line with the ambition of the Paris Agreement, a scenario in which projected losses and damages could be significantly reduced, impacts on the human systems and ecosystems cannot be eliminated completely.


As many other human activities, energy sector, and specifically electricity system, is expected to be affected by climate change effects.


The expected physical effects of climate change will not be the same in all areas of the world. Furthermore, the level of risk depends on the exposure[1] and vulnerability[2] of different electricity systems or actors involved in their management, which are very different according to the characteristics (physical and political) of each territory. Thus, the potential risks and their impacts will differ substantially between regions.


Due to this variability, this article is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis of the risks associated with climate change for electricity systems. However, some of the most important risks have been identified that could apply generally, considering that they could materialise in different regions to a greater or lesser extent depending on geographical areas and system characteristics.



Risks according to main climate change effects.


Climate change effects

Identified risks

Temperature increase

Infrastructure: damage to the equipment due to high temperatures

Generation: lower efficiency of thermal and photovoltaic generation

Transmission/distribution: decrease in capacity of power lines and transformers


Demand: changes in patterns, i.e., peak demand for cooling

Change in hydrological cycle and rainfall patterns

Generation: decrease in water availability for hydroelectric generation

Generation: decrease of water availability for thermal and nuclear generation (cooling)

Generation: overload hydropower storage due to excessive water or sediment transport due to glacier retreats or floods

Demand: increase of demand for energy-intensive seawater

desalination (in water-stressed regions)


Infrastructure: Damage, increase of maintenance costs (i.e.  due to corrosion, pollution accumulation)

Climate related extreme events: cyclones, floodings..

Infrastructure: damage of facilities, that can lead to severe impacts on electricity supply


Infrastructures & other: damage (mainly power lines) and damage to the environment or local communities.

Sea level rise

Infrastructures: impact on facilities near the sea

Combined factors

Infrastructures: changes in wildlife behaviour (i.e., populations, birds migratory routes..) that can affect infrastructure or increase impacts on biodiversity.

Other (biodiversity): additionally, unexpected behaviour of wildlife could also increase the impacts of infrastructure in biodiversity (i.e., bird collision with windmills or power lines)

Combined factors

Other (people): increased occupational risks associated with climatic conditions. Increased absenteeism due to weather-related health problems.



Different types of risks have been identified:


- Risks that affect infrastructures: the materialisation of these risks entails different impacts, among which we could highlight those related to the costs of repair or replacement of damaged assets, the increase in maintenance costs or even the impact on supply (which could be a blackout in extreme cases).

- Risks that do not directly affect infrastructures but have an impact on the electricity system: generation, transmission and distribution or demand. Some of these risks tend to materialise simultaneously and can jeopardise energy supply. For example, in the case of heat waves, these increases in peak cooling demand could also coincide with the reduction in generation output and transmission capacity of the lines described above. Prolonged episodes of drought would reduce the water resource for electricity generation, a situation that would be aggravated by coinciding with an increase in energy demand for desalination.

- Other risks that may indirectly imply impacts on the operation of the electricity system, such as the effects of climate change on the workforce.

As mentioned above, the severity of the impacts and consequences for the electricity system and therefore for society of the identified risks will vary depending on the intensity of the climate effect, the exposure, the sensitivity of the system and the adaptation capacity.



Anticipation and adaptation


Having resilient infrastructures and a reliable electricity system is key to addressing climate-related risks.

To this end, it is necessary to define and implement the necessary actions to reduce the exposure or vulnerability of existing infrastructures (those that are expected to be in operation in the medium to long term) and, bearing in mind that we are developing the system of the future, it is crucial to define and anticipate the changes that must be taken into account when planning and designing future infrastructures.

The definition of the appropriate adaptation measures can only be done on the basis of a specific identification and assessment of future risks and their impacts, based on studies of regionalised climate projections for different emission scenarios that complement the information obtained from the analysis of historical and current events.


Anticipating risks implies considering the results of climate scenario analysis and risk assessment in the different decision-making phases, including electricity planning, the definition of demand management, the configuration of markets, the design of new infrastructures or even the development of maintenance plans.  The implementation of measures that could be considered adaptation measures, such as diversification of energy generation - including decentralised energy sources (wind, solar, small-scale hydro)-, improved capacity to respond to supply deficits, efficient use of water, demand-side management, storage, energy efficiency improvements, responsive energy markets, updated asset and equipment design standards, robust and meshed transmission and distribution systems or smart grid technologies could significantly reduce vulnerability to climate change.


It should be borne in mind that, while it could be assumed that policy makers are responsible for assessing and preventing future climate risks, it is advisable that the different actors (generators, transmission and distribution companies, manufacturers, etc.) make progress in understanding and anticipating these risks and promote adaptation measures in their own activities. However, collaboration between the different actors would be highly desirable.


As a conclusion, scientific reports tell us that even if ambitious mitigation measures are put in place, there will be certain changes in the climate system that cannot be reversed. As we continue to push for mitigation measures to limit temperature rise and minimise these changes, it is imperative that we work to adapt to them. As we are now building the electricity system of the future, we must ensure that it is prepared for future conditions caused by climate change. We cannot build the system of the future based on the parameters of the past.


Anticipation is crucial, the more we anticipate, the greater and more efficient our ability to adapt.







[1] Exposure is defined as the presence of infrastructure/assets in places and settings that could be adversely affected by climate factors. (IPCC definition)

[2] Vulnerability is defined as the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected and encompasses a variety of concepts and elements, including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt. (IPCC definition)