Dr. ing. Dan Marcel BĂRBUŢ
Expert Adina OPREA
Summary points. Much energy infrastructure lies in areas that are predicted to become increasingly physically unstable owing to changes in the environment.
Already there have been environment-related disruptions to hydroelectric installations, offshore oil and gas production, pipelines, electrical transmission and nuclear power generation.
As a result of scheduled decommissioning, revised environmental standards, stimulus spending and new development, there is likely to be substantial investment in new energy infrastructure.
It is critical that new and existing infrastructure be designed or retrofitted for changing environmental conditions.
It is no longer sufficient only to assess our impact on the environment; now we must also assess the impact of a changing environment on us.
Energy generation, extraction, refining, processing and distribution require a complex, interlinked, expensive and sometimes global infrastructure. However, much of that infrastructure lies in areas that may become increasingly physically unstable owing to changes in the environment. Of particular concern are disruptions caused or exacerbated by climate change. A compromised global energy supply could result in a range of undesirable ancillary affects. There are two separate but often interlinked challenges.
One is inherited, one is new. Both stem from the fact that energy infrastructure tends to have a long lifespan. The Hoover Dam in the western United States was completed in 1935 and is still an important hydroelectric generator. China’s Three Gorges Dam, which is still not fully operational, has an expected lifespan of at least fifty years. Nuclear power stations, from design through to decommissioning, may be on the same site for a hundred years. Additionally, constructions such as refineries, coal power plants and high-voltage transmission lines can be perceived as undesirable for a community. As a result, when the time comes to build new installations, they are often erected in the same locations as the previous ones, as the local population is already accustomed to the infrastructure. This means that sites chosen in the 1980s may still be in operation in 2080 and beyond.
The lifespan of existing energy infrastructure is well within the timeframe predicted for potentially disruptive environmental change. When much of it was designed and installed, the degree of change was not understood and so was not factored in. This is an inherited challenge.
The new challenge involves upcoming investments. A substantial segment of energy infrastructure in North America and Western Europe is scheduled to be decommissioned in the coming decades either because it has reached the end of its natural lifespan or wing to the introduction of revised environmental standards.
Combined with stimulus packages in some countries and development in others, this is likely to be the beginning of an era of large-scale investments in new infrastructure. In some cases it is now possible to predict with scientific accuracy at least the minimum level of environmental change over the next century (well within the lifespan of most new investments).
However, in too many cases proposed new builds still do not incorporate the likely effects of environmental change. When planners talk about performing ‘environmental impact assessments’, almost invariably what is being assessed is how the construction would change the existing environment, not how a changing environment might affect the construction. While engineers and planners may perform a site inspection before designing an installation, they normally consider the parameters of that site a constant, not a variable. The general assumption is that the coast will not move, river levels will remain constant, the ground will not subside and precipitation will stay predictable. Most planners are not accustomed, and often not trained, to incorporate environmental change-induced site changes into designs. An added problem is that while some change may be broadly predictable, there is likely to be wide variability in some areas, making precise projections impossible. The science is improving, but there are still many unknowns and a lack of fine graining. This in itself is sometimes used as a justification to avoid incorporating any change at all. The result is that a multi-billion-pound, high-tech, environmentally friendly installation could be erected in what will soon become a flood zone. Not only will the original investment be lost, the destruction of the property itself can cause new vulnerabilities.
It is not enough just to assess an installation’s impact on the environment; one must also assess the impact of a changing environment on the installation. Then, as much as possible, the impact of that change must be integrated into planning and countered. In pursuit of this goal, this Briefing Paper aims to identify some of the most susceptible nodes in the global energy infrastructure and show how they might be affected by moderate environmental change.