Climate change will impact Nordic energy landscape

By Kristian Orispää, Fredrik Aronsson, Fredrik Holmqvist, Carita Hämäläinen-Tallgren, If

Three significant trends drive the energy landscape currently; the shift towards renewable energy sources, the electrification of society and finally the increased risks of weather-related losses. Recently, the Energiforsk project "Climate change impact on the energy system", which includes partners Profu, SMHI, IVL Swedish Environmental Institute and Chalmers University of Technology, released the results of the study on the consequences of climate change on the energy system. If P&C Insurance has been an active sponsor of the project, participating in the study groups with partners and industry.

I t is common knowledge today, that greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow globally. One prediction, for example, is that global temperatures will rise by some 1,5 to 3 degrees Celsius. This change is also expected to occur in the Nordic region.

Expert analysis was conducted on the potential risks around climate change, looking across the coming decades with respect to different energy systems. From wind to nuclear power, the research provided some important learnings on what life will look like in the Nordics and what needs to be done to secure its energy system.

Changes in the weather system

Some issues of particular importance to the energy sector, that were uncovered by the study, noted changes in wind and large-scale atmospheric circulation. Researchers also foresee an increased risk of stationary weather conditions, specifically high-pressure situations with little wind, or situations where multiple low-pressure fronts are sustained for longer periods of time. This may have consequences for electricity generation by wind farms primarily constructed in the northern part of Sweden.

Other changes that are expected include further variations in wind speeds (including mean winds and storms) and alterations in the amount of precipitation. Hydrological changes, both in frequency and intensity, are expected locally and regionally. This will include the growing distribution of rain and snow, as well as the increased amount of rainfall.

Similarly, an expected increase in the frequency and intensity of thunder, hail, as well as extreme weather events will continue. Researchers also noted that weather events with a very long return period (> several hundred years) will become more common as will Compound Events, where several weather events will occur at the same time and interact.

Energy sector braces for change

Sweden also belongs to the Arctic Region, together with Iceland, Norway and Finland. In this area, the climate is expected to change at a faster pace than elsewhere in the world.

According to Erik Kjellström, SMHI, there will be major changes in the Nordic climate. These will include higher temperatures for all seasons, with a longer summer season and shorter winters. Also, increased precipitation is expected, while there will be less sea ice during the winter.

Erik Kjellström notes, “we have already seen a major change in the climate. The continued gradual change to increasingly warmer temperatures will shift the seasonal weather patterns. We can expect a more intensive hydrological cycle. There will also be great variability between the years, with alternating hot or cold years, as well as years with increased rain or dryness. There is also uncertainty about changes in the wind climate, however more frequent and increasingly varied extreme weather events are expected.”

Warmest year on record

In Europe, 2019 was the warmest year ever recorded. As global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow, temperatures are expected to reach 3 °C above today’s averages by end of the century.

Growing focus on renewable energy

Today, climate change is influencing the development of energy systems around the world. One key element in the fight against climate change has been the rise of renewable energy production. As Thomas Unger, Profu states, “Climate change will work in a different energy system than what we know today – we and our neighbouring countries are mitigating the impacts of climate change!”

Our future energy system will be more weather dependent (regardless of climate signal); wind power, solar and biofuels will grow in importance. However, we will also become more dependent on electricity, therefore the significance of the electricity grid, will remain vital. The overall impact of climate change is dependent upon the importance of each respective energy type, and their role in the energy system of the future.

In the "Climate change impact on the energy system” project, all types of energy have been analysed separately, however the electricity grid is the cohesive link and is sensitive to sudden events. A certain aspect of climate change can be hidden, featuring natural variations over several years that will need to be strengthened.

Some take-aways

Some of the main take-aways include forest fires, which are estimated to increase in frequency and threaten transmission lines. In addition, fires in biomass storage locations are expected to increase as well. As the sea gets warmer, the cooling effect is reduced for nuclear plants, leading to reduced output.

For hydropower, which is the main electricity generation source in Norway and Sweden, increased events of severe precipitation will add pressure on dams and emergency spillways. This will impact the ability to tap excess water to avoid dam breaks.

Many wind farms are installed, and many wind projects are planned in Northern Scandinavia. However, in this region also icing of blades are believed to be an increased problem when the average temperatures increase. Also, transmission lines will be exposed for increased icing.

Dive into the grid

For any society to function, the electricity grid is of vital importance. Without power, society will quickly come to a halt altogether. The electricity grid is also sensitive to sudden events, so preparing for the scenarios carefully will be important to ensure reliable energy distribution in the future.

According to the study, several climate change related factors were identified, which may affect the electricity grid.

Some examples of issues that can have a direct impact on the electricity network include:

  • Increased risk of icing and changes in icing in different regions
  • More intense and heavier thunder events, which in turn can affect the electricity networks, transformers, control system, for example.
  • Risks relating to the increasing number of extreme events, e.g., ice storms and hurricane winds?

For each potential threat, an evaluation was created which considered multiple factors to raise awareness of the scenario and its potential risks.

Today, there is a large knowledge base in place, which includes extensive reports, data and information that will allow decision-makers in industry and the relevant authorities to implement the changes needed.

However, we need to act now, in order to benefit from these study results. Acting later will be more difficult and unnecessarily expensive.

A project with a purpose

According to Fredrik Aronsson, Risk Engineer at If P&C Insurance and Chairman of If's Energy Competence Centre, “If joined the project in January 2020 as a sponsor and our role has been to contribute our expertise in risk management and claims knowledge. Naturally, the findings of this research are not limited to energy companies, but the changing climate will also impact many other industries as well.”

According to Lisa Göransson, Chalmers University of Technology, the changes in the energy resource base will impact the composition of the electricity distribution system. Significant system impact is expected, including the increased inflow to water reservoirs, increased growth of biomass, while the demand for heat will decline. Other examples include, unforeseen costs stemming from power blackouts or heavy rainfall may be significantly higher than believed.

There is now a large Nordic knowledge base and what is needed next, is action. By acting now, energy producers and distributors will minimise the risk of facing unnecessarily expensive changes to existing production methods and systems.

Global temperature

Source: 'Climate change impact on the energy system' study 2021

It is important that we work together to increase knowledge of how climate change afects the energy system and society at large.

Stefan Montin, Energiforsk

Roadmap for the future

Many researchers and analysts found the “Climate change impact on the energy system” study to be a milestone project, bringing together climate scientists and technology experts to study climate change and plan for what lies ahead. Utilising reliable data and accurate modelling has helped to establish a clear view of what lies ahead as well as lay the foundation for concrete planning on how to mitigate these impacts.

Fredrik Aronsson reminds us that the consequences of climate change will affect not only the power industry in the Nordic region, but may also impact end users, including industries that are relying on a steady supply of electricity.

“The stability of electrical supply varies between different grids across the world. It is important that we continually assess our exposures to electrical blackouts, and what mitigation measures your local facility should put in place to avoid any serious damages in case of power failure."

Power and electricity are vital to our current ways of life. Without robust and reliable energy production and distribution commerce and societies would face inexplicable consequences.

Article published in Risk Consulting 2/2021