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Climate change boosts weather forecasting role for oil and gas industry.

CLIMATE change is now widely accepted as taking place across the planet, with huge implications for all industries, and the energy sector is no exception. Predictions from expert weather organisations make unsettling reading: the long-range forecast is for extremes of temperatures and more violent weather, more often.

Climate change has vast implications for the energy sector. Hotter weather may mean that the power cables that run through sun-parched soil reduce their output; sea level rises may affect coastal gas and oil power stations, and drier rivers may mean a lack of water to cool power plants; and storms and severe weather may damage infrastructure, with implications for the design of off-shore rig structures. "The key thing is that climate change has got the potential to turn the whole of the energy sector on its head," said Rob Harrison, senior climate change consultant at Britain's Met [Meterological] Office.

According to a major report for the UK Government last year by Sir Nicholas Stern, greenhouse gas emissions have already accounted for a 0.5% rise in temperatures. If no action is taken on emissions, there is more than a 75% chance of global temperatures rising between two and three degrees Celsius over the next 50 years. Stern went further and declared that he believes 5-6 degrees of warming is a 'real possibility' for the next century.

So, if climate change is happening, the energy sector is going to have to adjust, and one of their key tools is likely to be the same bodies that will offer notification of extreme weather--the weather forecasters. According to Mr Harrison, the impact on the energy sector will be twofold--first, seasonality, whereby there will be significant changes as to when energy, and the specific quantities are required; second, a potential increase in extreme events.

A major concern is the likely increase in temperatures in summer. As these increase, more cities will require air conditioning for offices and homes (a trend that became apparent in London in the summer of 2006). The challenge this presents to the industry is that many generators reduce output in summer, and most of their infrastructure is designed to carry maximum output in cold weather, when it benefits from natural cooling. When it gets hot, the underlying cables must reduce capacity--this is because if cables get too hot, their lifetime can reduce dramatically. The clear implication for power companies is that they will need costly replacement cables suitable for the hotter, drier conditions. "We are going to get changes in seasonality," said Mr Harrison. "We've historically seen a peak demand for energy in winter but in some ways that is already changing with more energy needed for cooling in summer--we're seeing a double peak."

Drier summers may impact upon the energy sector in other ways. They are likely to mean shrinking rivers--and oil and gas power stations rely on rivers to keep cool; this means that, without intervention, they may need to reduce output. The efficiency and output of gas-fired power stations is also directly affected by the weather--the temperature and humidity of the air burnt with the gas has a direct impact on their maximum possible output, as well as their fuel-to-output ratio.

Sea level rises are another concern. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels are likely to rise by up to 69cm by 2080. Almost all nuclear and many gas oil power stations are on the coast; and the UK, in the midst of an energy review that is expected to embrace a new generation of nuclear power plants, is likely to build new structures in existing locations. With sea rises and storm surges, there is a need for site-specific projections of how severe these impacts may be.

As a result, the energy sector may be caught between a rock and a hard place. A power company that plans to relocate to the coast to ensure a supply of cooling water (because the drier summers may reduce river flow) will have to anticipate that sea level rises and more powerful storm surges will take place and build accordingly.

Strangely enough, while the impact of climate change is concentrating minds on alternatives to fossil fuels, the green energy sector may also suffer from global warming. Climate change may result in erratic wind patterns and wind directions may well change over the next 30 years. Wind farms already put up at great cost to catch wind from a certain direction may be rendered redundant. Using long-term weather forecasting may aid decisions on where best to build and position wind farms. However, one prediction associated with climate change is that we will have less wind--and less related energy in the summer months at a time when energy demand will be higher than it is today. Similarly, other alternative fuels, such as biomass and biofuels, typically grown from rapeseed and soya, may not thrive at the level required by demand because of long droughts during summer months.

The benefit of Met Office advice for the energy sector is that not only can it offer short-term warnings and advisories for the next six hours, it is beginning to offer such projections--on a broader scale--for the next 100 years. In response to the challenge of climate change, and to better co-ordinate advice on how the energy sector might lessen the blow, the Met Office has set up an advisory arm, Met Office Consulting. Last year it undertook a Climate Change and Energy Management Scoping Study with three leading UK-based power companies, with the aim to plan strategically for the years ahead. "The aim of our research is to forearm as well as forewarn the energy sector," said Mr Harrison. "The key is planning. If we get that right now, we will be able to reduce the effects of climate change in the future--but traditionally, climate change modelling has not been incorporated into planning decisions."

At the moment many planning decisions are based on a safety level calculated on a 'one in 100-year event'--i.e. an extreme event so rare that is likely to only occur once in 100 years. But Mr Harrison believes what constitutes a one-in-100-year event may change in the decades to come. "We can't give quantitative predictions of change but we can scope the scale of it," he said. Research will be launched next year that will work with climate change modelling to attempt to quantify just what the potential implications may be. "The future is entirely uncertain," said Mr Harrison. "But if we can be a bit more certain it will help - though we would never tell an energy company what they should do. We can say 'this may happen' or soon we will be able to say 'this is most likely'."

While the Met Office does not expect to be able to say with certainty to a power company what the temperature is going to be underneath Piccadilly Circus in August 2040, the aim is to be able to give them an idea of the kind of changes they might expect, and work on small spatial scales specific to local conditions. "A power company may decide to lay down cables that are 20% bigger--they may not need them tomorrow but they would not have to dig them in a hurry in 10 years' time."

Meanwhile, in the United States, weather forecasters are taking a more realistic approach to climate change than their President would perhaps agree with. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Lab and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) are to build the first complete 20th Century database of global weather maps. The project is a major next step to improving computer models of past and future climate. Called the 20th Century Reanalysis Project, the new dataset will double the number of years for which a complete record of three-dimensional atmospheric climate data is available, extending the usable digital dataset from 1948 back to 1892. The data will be crucial to the energy sector as it strives to anticipate what the effects of climate change will be--and for suggesting ways in which the effects can be mitigated.

The NOAA's Climate Prediction Centre has upgraded its Severe Weather Forecast Project, which an give scientific assessments of the likelihood of severe weather events, such as droughts or hurricanes, from six days up to 90 days. "Climate prediction is different from weather prediction in that it forecasts the most probable averaged state of the environment, rather than the daily sequence of environmental changes," said a spokesman for the NOAA. "Being able to predict seasonal climate can help minimise the possibility of climate surprises in order to reduce impacts to society and ecosystems. With these predictions, decision-makers can be provided with reliable scientific information about possible extreme climate events."

The NOAA now runs a Climate Program Office (CPO), which provides climate services and information for better management of energy through observations, analyses and predictions, and sustained user interaction. Services include assessments and predictions of climate change and variability on timescales ranging from weeks to decades. Recently, NOAA successfully completed the North American Monsoon Experiment (NAME) field campaign in collaboration with other US, Mexican and Central American agencies and academic institutions - which improved plans for monitoring and predicting the North American monsoon, and generated a more comprehensive understanding of North American summer climate variability and predictability.

At the end of 2006, the NOAA also announced that by 2012 it would increase its predictive capability over a range of time-scales (intraseasonal to decadal and beyond) and improved attribution of observed (20th century) climate variability and change that will enable it to provide NOAA customers, including energy companies, with assessments of current and future impacts of regional to global climate events such as major droughts, floods, long-term climate trends, and trends in extreme climate events.

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Author:Rowe, Mark
Publication:International News
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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