If you're an electric utility planning a new power plant by a river, it would be nice to know what that river will look like 20 years down the road. Will it be so high that it might flood the new facility? Will the water be so low that it can't be used to cool the plant?
Generally, such projections have been based on records of past precipitation, temperature, flooding and other historical data. But in an era when temperature and precipitation are changing rapidly, historical patterns won't do you much good. That's where a new initiative by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, which combines climate data and analysis with infrastructure planning and decision support, promises real help.
"What we're doing is combining expertise and tools that are available only within Argonne to take something that is incredibly complex—understanding what's going on with climate—and distilling it down to something that is really actionable for the energy provider or the engineer," said John Harvey, a business development executive at Argonne who acts as a liaison between power utility companies and the Argonne research team.
The initiative offers power utilities and other customers access to extremely localized climate models run on supercomputers, as well as the expertise of the climate scientists who run them. Other experts include the lab's environmental modelers (who can, for example, model how changes in precipitation translate into changes in flooding) as well as infrastructure modelers and risk assessment experts (who can forecast how that flooding will affect electric infrastructure and the grid).
Together, they help utilities make informed decisions about how to improve infrastructure to avoid future outages. Advance planning can help utilities both protect themselves and take advantage of new opportunities.
"This really helps utilities plan for their infrastructure investments," said Ushma Kriplani, a business development executive who, like Harvey, helps customers work with the scientists and facilities at Argonne to ensure they get the information and advice they need to make more informed decisions. "Infrastructure investments are both huge in size and look out many years. When you need to plan on time scales that span 30 or 40 years, you need to factor in all the things that are going to change."
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