UT, ORNL Study Climate’s Role in Demands Placed on Energy Grid

Changes in climate and shifts in population density can lead to significant changes in regional demand for electricity. As the nation plans its infrastructure improvements for the future, vulnerabilities at local scale will be an important consideration.

Joshua Fu, a UT professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his colleagues at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are applying a new methodology for predicting the demands that future climate and population changes could place on the nation’s energy grid.

“What we wanted to do is to look at population trends, look at climate trends and figure out where the problems will be down the road to better predict the strains brought on by increased electricity demand at the resolution of the electricity service area,” said Fu.

Fu and Civil and Environmental Engineering Research Professor Steven Fernandez coordinated with ORNL’s Mohammed Olama and Melissa Allen, who was Fu’s former PhD student at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. The team used Fu’s previous climate study to help analyze these impacts to the nation’s electrical grid.

That data, combined with projected population growth and shifts due to extreme events such as hurricanes, allowed the team to begin theorizing appropriate responses to those threats.

As the temperature goes up in the summer, the thermostat gets turned down in a constant battle to keep living spaces comfortable, which increases the overall demand for electricity.

With increasing temperatures due to climate change, the effect is more severe still. As populations shift and concentrate in some cities, demand during the summer spikes further in those locations.

Electricity providers can plan to some extent for population growth, but sudden shifts can become more problematic.

One example of such a shift in population is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which forced an immediate change in electricity demand. As a result, networked infrastructures were required to accommodate new load centers.

With the intensity and frequency of natural disasters on the increase, population distribution could change rapidly in the areas directly affected by disaster as well as the locations that take in displaced victims.

“We’re not saying that all future extreme events will happen to those degrees, but we want to be ready if and when it does occur,” said Fu.

Fu said this study demonstrates that power grids and energy delivery must be developed not just for now, but for the “what ifs.”

The next step for the group is to develop more solutions and refined data, with an eye on keeping the nation’s power supply and demand ahead of potential problems.

The research was recently featured in Nature Energy.


David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)