Sandy Just a Harbinger of Worse Storms to Come, According to New Report

'Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,’ reads open letter to American people

It is no secret that Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New Jersey power’s grid, leaving millions of customers without electricity — many for a week or longer.

Get used to it, warns a new report.

Extreme weather is likely to increase not only in frequency but intensity, and the nation’s energy facilities will continue to suffer major disruptions, particularly those located in coastal regions, according to a draft National Climate Assessment report.

The likely consequences of those storms and of a warmer planet will be to ramp up peak electricity demand in regions like the Northeast, requiring additional generation and distribution facilities to be built, the report said. For consumers, that could mean as much as an 11 percent jump in bills, according to a separate study cited in the nearly 1,000-page report.

In New Jersey, consumer advocates have already warned of higher energy bills as the state’s gas and electric utilities invest hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading, rebuilding, and possibly moving key elements of their infrastructure away from the flooding that contributed to power outages last fall.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,’’ the authors of the report cautioned in a letter to the American people.

Portions of the state’s environmental community are likely to argue that the report underscores the need for New Jersey to take more aggressive steps to deal with global climate change. But the Christie administration pulled out of a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a move much criticized by clean energy advocates.

Hurricane Sandy underlined how vulnerable the power grid in New Jersey is to extreme weather. During Sandy, 58 electric utility substations flooded, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers, including some oil refineries. Their shutdown also contributed to a shortage of gasoline, which had drivers lining up for hours to refill their tanks at the few stations that had power.

The report analyzed what changes could be expected in different regions of the country. In the Northeast, warmer and longer summers are expected, a trend that would drive up electricity costs as peak demand rises. The Northeast can expect an additional 10 days each summer when temperatures soar above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the report.

“In order to meet increased demands for peak electricity, additional generation and distribution facilities will be needed,’’ the report concluded.

In New Jersey, that need is already on the radar of lawmakers and the Christie administration. They have approved a controversial plan to spur new power plant construction in the state by awarding potentially lucrative ratepayer subsidies to two developers.

The state also is looking at ways to build more distributed generation, plants that provide the power large energy users such as manufacturers, hospitals, and universities need to keep the lights on when major storms occur.

In the long term, however, a rise in sea level will affect coastal facilities and infrastructure that many energy systems, markets, and consumers depend on, the report warned. Most vulnerable are California and the Gulf Coast, according to the study, although some of New Jersey’s biggest energy facilities are located in coastal areas.

In addressing the implications of climate change, the report urges policymakers to look at a number of ways to minimize its impact on energy facilities, some of which are now under consideration in New Jersey. They include elevating water-sensitive equipment and improving reliability of the grid through the use of backup power supplies and distributed generation.

In the future, energy systems will differ from today’s in many ways, the report suggested, but did not detail how so because of the uncertainty about what technologies will prosper. “Climate change will introduce more risks, as well as opportunities, the report said.

The study cited offshore wind and solar facilities as one potential example. They could be sited in areas that are initially more expensive, but less subject to large reductions in power plant output resulting from climate change, the report said.