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How Will Climate Change Affect Renewable Energy Sources?

Renewable energy is often touted as one of the main ways to combat climate change. But could climate change negatively impact renewable energy sources like wind and solar? For example, the Texas deep freeze at the beginning of 2021 actually froze wind turbines. Might changing weather and temperatures lessen the effectiveness of renewable energy sources around the globe, and what does that mean for companies and facilities that have installed distributed energy resources (DERs)? In this article, we’ll explore those questions and more.

First Things First: How Does a Changing Climate Impact Renewables?

Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer weather – it also means more erratic weather patterns. A January 2021 study published in Nature Climate Change set out to answer how such weather will impact eight key renewable technologies. Luckily for us, the study found that the risks to renewable energy sources are relatively modest. That said, hydropower and wind energy could decline in some regions and increase in others, while the potential of utility scale solar could decrease.

The report assessed the impact of two different warming scenarios on utility-scale and residential solar photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, on and offshore wind energy, bioenergy, and hydropower. General climate models were used to map climate parameters that directly influence renewables, e.g., the amount of solar power reaching the Earth, temperature, wind speed, and groundwater flows.

In the first scenario where warming was minimal, the impact on renewables was uncertain, “with no clear signal in either direction,” the report found. In the second scenario where warming was more pronounced, there was a bigger impact on renewables, with some sources increasing and others decreasing in potential. The simulations found that temperate regions like the eastern United States would see a considerable increase in solar potential. Across the world, the potential for concentrated solar and residential rooftop PV increased by 2 percent and hydropower potential increased by 6 percent. Bioenergy potential worldwide rose 32 percent while utility-scale PV and wind energy potential went down.

The study should be taken with a grain of salt, however. Follow-up studies are needed to assess climate impacts on a more local level. Also, the findings may be conservative because the study does not account for extreme weather events triggered by climate change. “Long periods of calm winds or drought, or reduced predictability of weather patterns, can be troublesome for energy systems with a high share of renewables in the future,” the report states. “These periods may occur more frequently or intensely under climate change.”

What About Those Texas Wind Turbines?

One of the many shocking parts of the Lone Star State’s legendary cold snap was frozen wind turbines. The incident caused Sid Miller, Texas’s Commissioner of Agriculture, to say, “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas. The experiment failed big time.” The frozen turbines spawned much worry over how renewables could stand up to erratic and unexpected weather events (like cold snaps), which are predicted to increase as climate change progresses.

The operating range for typical wind turbines is between -4 and 104-degrees Fahrenheit, so very cold temperatures can cause up to a 10 percent reduction in annual energy production as a combination of icing stops or reduced efficiency in operations. Luckily, many new wind turbines are equipped with cold weather packages, which involve the heating up of turbine components and lubricants. If the Texas turbines had had such cold weather packages, they likely would have been just fine. Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex in the U.K., said, “…Wind power operates very reliably in colder temperatures, including the upper Arctic regions. As long as wind turbines are properly maintained and serviced, they can operate reliably in temperatures well below zero. Humans, to carry out servicing and maintenance and operation, are the most important factor, not the weather.”

What Does All This Mean for Your Company?

Rooftop solar panels are the most common and fastest-growing type of DER. Whether you have installed them on your building or facility or are planning to, rest assured: Climate change likely won’t have any significant impact on them for the foreseeable future. If they are impacted, energy production will increase rather than decrease, according to the report mentioned above.

If you are thinking of switching to using renewable energy sources at your company, the outlook is similarly positive. Renewable energy has quickly become cheap, making it a good deal for your company both in terms of cost and benefit to the planet.

How EnergyWatch Can Help

EnergyWatch’s WatchWire software can help you measure and verify the efficiency of your DER(s), for example, if you decide to install solar panels on your building(s), WatchWire can track how much they are saving you in terms of utility costs and emissions. Additionally, you can simplify your renewable production tracking with WatchWire’s ability to consolidate all onsite renewable production data (whether it is solar, fuel cell, battery, etc.) across multiple sites and vendors. WatchWire is vendor agnostic, delivering either a lagged or real-time data integration.  With centralized interval level production, the production can be rolled up by capacity, technology, geography, and/or time period. You can track and report actual production vs. guaranteed/warrantied production in other to true up against contracts. Learn more about WatchWire here.