We have progress: many very large cities, as well as several medium-sized cities, now have initial climate adaptation plans in place and are taking the first steps toward adaptation; the federal goverment (due to opposition) has only been able to pass a stripped-down climate effort that may fund about 5%-15% of target for 2050, far short of what is needed and only passed by trading off the welfare of low-income and non-white communities as continuing ecological sacrifice zones - but a start. Remember, if we want to come out ahead, we must focus on thinking well, ahead of time (we are running very late); and climate adaptation is best done by facing forward. Without near universal clarity on the "Big Picture", including where we are in time, political realities force trade-offs. Right now, what we can say is that we have to do better. We will likely not make it through without full inclusion or by continuing the pattern of engineering new social and technical regret. Each year, there are increased numbers of climate incidents such as forest fires, methane release, extensive increasing droughts, excessive heat and heat domes, warming of the oceans, melting of the glacial ice, artic vortex, and flooding. The increasing and overlapping events are damaging out capability to function.
You may have noticed that costs for just about everything are increasing, plant life is under long-term water stress, water supply systems are running seriously short, agriculture is becoming more difficult, there is climate related loss of energy and focus, sickness, and deaths. What will grow to become massive migrations have already begun, supply chains are being disrupted, and work discipline is also affected. We are in a sequence of accelerating and overlapping changes, heading into deep disaster. Right now, we are not passing the Darwin tests. We are running very late in arriving at full-scale and intelligent engagement. Animals and plants are moving up mountains and towards the poles. Though climate work has been initiated it is far too small an engagement; we humans haven't quite got things processed yet to understand the scope and speed of the threat, organization is weak, resource applied is almost non-existent, even with the recent legislation. The necessary scope and force of response is not there.
What does this mean for utilities? Normally energy and water infrastructure planning works on a three- or five-year cycle. Projections are typically for 10, 20, or 30 years. The regulatory system works well because though planning is for 30 years, the studies are repeated every three or five years, so there is a lot of opportunity for inspection, testing, and correction. For the most part standard studies use least-cost planning and cost/benefit criteria in selection of infrastructure plans. The process self-corrects with new information in each cycle. These infrastructure plans include maintenance, engineering staffing, and new construction. They are informed by forecasts, input by parties, and feed-in to rate cases essential to fund the work.
If you are planning infrastructure, here is an exercise: For a planning and participation process of two years with perhaps twenty meetings of parties to review and guide the work, add three meetings to back-cast what needs to be in place and when from a perspective 75 years out. Address the 75-year plan with the same level of analytic resource as the standard study. This will show the problems of the least-cost planning and cost effectiveness criteria used in standard planning. Looking back from 75 years in the future you will see that you needed to complete some high-cost infrastructure beginning in early years. You will also be much better able to realistically gauge the ramping of rate requirements. Then fully vet both plans and meld them together each time you do a planning cycle.
When the size and acceleration of the climate changes are understood, which takes work, it becomes clear that no current planning efforts are careful or coordinated enough not to forgo damage to infrastructure or removal of plants until substitute plants are in place and able to perform (for electricity and gas, this means meeting the energy and demand profile 8,760 hours per year without need for public service curtailment or rolling blackouts). Running in parallel is a pretty simple principle, and one utilities are used to in adopting, for example, when putting in place a new customer information system or a new billing system. You run in parallel for six months before you begin to weaken or take down the old system. If electrification, decarbonation, and hardening of infrastructure for resilience are to proceed without planning failure and danger to public welfare, planning staff has to be increased and infrastructure change has to be better coordinated with plan.
Transition should not be constantly at the edge of system failure, which, in plain language, is what is happening when voluntary curtailment is requested, or electric systems experience rolling blackouts or go down, or water systems break down. Part of the problem is that climate change is a process of progressive disaster that becomes more severe over time, and our planning models do not yet incorporate disaster planning as a top-level goal.
What can be Done
(1) Every utility and agency should have a climate officer and small staff to help leverage the entire organization into climate adaptation. The climate group develops ways to update all utility planning and operations to include climate.
(2) Every utility (electric, gas, and water) should develop a climate policy.
(3) Each should develop an electrification policy.
(4) Each should develop a decarbonization policy.
(5) Rate models should develop a quantitative picture of what will happen to rates by class between now and 2050, and then project through 2100 and 2150. Of course, in practice, all projections are recreated about every five years, so within regulatory and organizational planning systems, projections are corrected every five years. The longer view is also needed, however, because climate change is not on a human scale. We need to take more of a deep time perspective to understand our location in time, where we are, and where we need to go. And we need incorporate back-casting from points 75 or 100 years in the future to understand what needs to happen now and what must be accomplished by when. This is in addition to our standard planning and rate case processing cycles and should be melded back within those standard cycles to develop information on what must be done, by when.
(6) All utility functions, including energy efficiency, should be re-oriented within a climate framework. Climate aware programs will look different from existing programs as local climate realities and projections are taken into account. Decoupling is essential to climate adaptation. Some utilities are doing these things.
(7) We need many carefully planned demonstration projects.
(8) To manage risk, before closing plants we need to run tests in parallel to empicially demonstrate that replacement solar, wind and batteries provide equivalent service capability.
(9) Evaluation should apply from a climate framework; this includes incorporating integration of disaster preparedness and inclusion as a principal part of the obligation to serve.