Renewable energy in the time of floods, droughts and hurricanes

Renewable energy plants are built to last decades. How will climate change alter the weather patterns they’re designed for in the years to come?

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Chris Ziesler still remembers the day he learned that a wind farm could survive a hurricane. 

It was back in August 2017, just after the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Papalote Creek Wind Farm near Corpus Christi, Texas. It was the first time that a hurricane had hit a wind farm in the U.S., and all eyes were on the damage it had caused. 

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Ziesler now serves as director of advisory services for North American renewables at UL, the advisory and certification body. At the time of Hurricane Harvey, Ziesler’s client, Matthew Meyers, was head of wind yield assessment at Papalote Creek’s owner E.ON, which transferred its renewables business to RWE in 2019.

He told me that the wind farm managed to restart really quickly and helped the grid to come back online,” Ziesler told Canary Media.

Papalote Creek’s rapid comeback even made the pages of The Wall Street Journal, which noted that most of the six-day delay in restarting the wind farm was due to power line damage rather than turbine problems. 

But the impact of events such as Hurricane Harvey on renewable energy plants is likely to become an increasingly vexing issue as climate change alters weather patterns. After all, wind and solar plants are sited and built with specific meteorological conditions in mind.

As these conditions continue to change and evolve, what should renewable asset owners and operators expect to see?

Rare events are the big problem

Some questions along these lines are more relevant than others. For example, will solar plants experience diminishing returns because of increased cloud cover, or will production increase as the energy transition clears fossil fuel particulates from the skies?

The answer to this particular question is largely irrelevant, according to Marcel Suri, managing director of the meteorological consultancy Solargis. That’s because shifts in cloud cover and the like are happening too slowly to make a big difference to today’s solar farms.

We don’t think that over the next 20 years there will be a higher deviation, for example, for global horizontal irradiance of more than maybe 1 or 2 percent, which is relatively reasonable,” he said in an interview.

A much bigger concern is how climate change is affecting the frequency and intensity of events such as Hurricane Harvey. That’s because hurricanes fit into a category of low-incidence, high-severity perils that the insurance industry refers to as natural catastrophes, or nat cat” in industry parlance.

Events such as earthquakes and floods have always been an occasional problem for infrastructure owners. But a report this year from the renewable energy insurer GCube noted an increase in more localized phenomena such as torrential rains, hail and wildfires.

As global temperatures soar, extreme weather has become the new normal,” states the report. For renewable energy projects, these events pose just as much a threat as more traditional [natural catastrophes] and lead to significant insurance claims.”

The U.S. renewables market is seeing the highest volume of nat cat” loss in the world, said the report, with windstorms accounting for 75 percent of losses by value since 2010; wildfires have taken the lead in the last three years.

Unsurprisingly, insurance premiums are rising as a result. There is a certain irony in the fact that renewable energy, a sector that is expanding rapidly in its mission to fight climate change, has become one of those most exposed to its effects,” says the report.

Extreme weather is not only a growing problem for renewable energy assets, but it is also one that is not very easy to model or forecast,” said Harsh Goenka, Solargis’ head of business development, in an interview. Data providers have a lot of work to do.”

But if renewable energy is threatened by climate change, it could also help societies to resist the impact of global warming — and not just by helping to reduce carbon emissions. Renewables can make energy systems more resilient on several levels.

Fighting back against climate change

A storm or fire may damage individual solar panels or wind turbines. But as the Papalote Creek incident demonstrated, that won’t bring down the entire plant. In this respect, renewables may be more resilient than larger thermal generation units.

Another factor in favor of low-carbon energy technologies is that when they’re deployed in a distributed fashion, they can help keep the lights on when the grid gets knocked out.

In 2019, for example, the California Public Utilities Commission proposed giving battery-solar backup systems to residential customers at greatest risk of wildfires and blackouts.

Finally, at a time when human activity is increasing the amount of energy in the earth’s atmosphere, leading to extreme weather events, it makes sense to pull as much of that energy back out using wind and solar power.

One of the more radical proposals arising from this fact came in 2014 paper written by Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering Mark Jacobson and others, which suggested using arrays of offshore wind turbines to lessen the impact of hurricanes.

The paper suggests turbine arrays of more than 300 gigawatts of capacity could cut hurricane wind speeds by up to 92 miles per hour and storm surges by up to 79 percent.

It’s hard to think of any other form of energy infrastructure that could be as effective in tackling extreme weather. And the best part is that reducing hurricane damage isn’t even the major benefit.

There’s nothing better than a big field of turbines to slow down the wind early on,” said Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, lead research scientist at UL, in an interview. But the funny thing about it is that if you look carefully at the at the economic good that was achieved by building those wind turbines, the vast majority is in the electricity that they generate.”

(Article image courtesy of Gritte) 

Jason Deign focuses on global trends in climatetech, energy storage and wind. He is based in Barcelona, Spain.