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Years of work led by Paulina Jaramillo have culminated in an integrated energy modeling framework that combines physical phenomena and cost-minimizing optimization to analyze the challenges and tradeoffs facing our energy systems in the decades ahead.

Jaramillo and her team’s recent study focused on the Southeastern United States. However, issues such as climate change and its impact discussed in their research will affect regions across the US.

“We are excited to have finally published the results of this project, which involved a large team working together for five years,” said Jaramillo, a professor of engineering and public policy. “When we started the project, there wasn’t too much work about climate impacts on the power systems.”

Extreme climatic events like those affecting Texas and the Pacific Northwest have provided an early warning for events to come; they have shown that money and even lives are at risk when people are unable to receive electricity from the energy-decision makers whom they rely on to ensure its delivery. As Jaramillo and her team show, energy planning that doesn’t account for the effects of climate change will result in tremendous costs to society.

“Our study demonstrates that adapting to climate change isn’t a significant driver of future costs,” said Michael Craig, former Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. student and a professor as the University of Michigan. “Instead, it’s failing to adapt to climate change that can significantly increase costs and have large social consequences”

There is now more awareness of the risks of climate impacts on power systems. Mitigation and adaptation strategies can align.

Paulina Jaramillo, Professor, Engineering and Public Policy

Their study found that across the country overall electricity demand will rise, and demand peaks during the summer will disproportionately intensify. Increased demand and increases in the size of demand peaks in particular will necessitate an increase in generation capacity. However, increased demand has not been the only factor at play in recent events like those in Texas and the Pacific Northwest.

Environmental extremes related to climate change can also damage energy infrastructure or push equipment past its parameters for safe operation, forcing system operators to shut it down. Over the past year, outages occurred due to extreme cold in Texas and due to wildfire risk in California and Oregon. Even when operational, the strain placed on generating equipment by increased extremes in climate could reduce the available capacity at individual power plants, a process known as “derating.”

Unlike prior work on climate impacts on the power sector, the team’s model simultaneously accounts for demand- and supply-side impacts and evaluates both the effects on planning decisions, as well as well as operating issues. That’s why Jaramillo is eager to get this and similar tools into the hands of the decision-makers charged with building and managing our energy systems—utilities, regulators, utility commissions, and others.

Jaramillo’s team, with the support of the Clean Air Task Force, has already held one webinar for academics and researchers to discuss the results of this study and identify additional research needs. The team will present their work to industry and regulators at another upcoming webinar in November.

“Obviously, there is now more awareness of the risks of climate impacts on power systems,” said Jaramillo. “It is also interesting to note that changes in investment decisions to mitigate climate-induced risks can also support carbon emissions reductions, which highlights that mitigation and adaptation strategies can align.”

As Jaramillo works to put these new results into the right hands, her research will continue to help chart the way ahead for energy planners. She intends to incorporate further historical data into the team’s model and expand their tool to model the effects of increased electrification and climate induced extremes on energy systems. Her research group and collaborators at the University of Michigan and University of Washington are also exploring the impacts of climate change on renewable energy sources, transmission efficiency across the power grid, and through acute climate events like forest fires or flooding.

The team also includes Carnegie Mellon’s Mario Berges, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Edson Severnini, an associate professor of economics and public policy, as well as colleagues at the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.