Engineering Sustainable Change
As the effects of climate change are starting to impact daily life in ways such as severe drought, flooding, and wildfire, many communities are addressing the issues head on, developing climate action plans and climate change impact response strategies. By assessing their vulnerabilities to potential climate-related impacts, they are considering the resources that could be affected, the level of exposure they face, and their ability to respond or adapt to potential changes.
For example, potential impacts of climate change in the Rocky Mountain region include warmer summer temperatures, wetter winters with more rain and less snow, periods of intense drought, and increases in flooding risk due to heavy downpours. While local governments certainly play a role in mitigating and adapting to these changes, it is essential to also involve utility providers in the climate response conversation. This is because the systems that face some of the greatest vulnerabilities due to climate change – water and energy – are also utility services.
Our recent work with the City of Fort Collins, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah has focused on assessing climate-related vulnerabilities facing the communities and their utilities. Some of the top vulnerabilities identified include water supply and quality, and energy use and costs. As municipal utility providers, Fort Collins and Salt Lake City have opportunities not only to mitigate their impacts on the climate though the utilities delivered, but also to take steps towards enhancing resiliency of utility systems as the climate changes. Strategies such as strengthening and adding in redundancies to infrastructure, incorporating renewable energy technologies, planning for increased water storage, water supply protection and diversification, and changing landscaping and irrigation practices are a few potential ways to address these vulnerabilities and enhance resiliency.
Opportunities to expand resiliency are not limited to municipal utilities like those in Fort Collins and Salt Lake City. While the ability to directly influence change may be limited with some utility providers, there are important points of emphasis and coordination to build resiliency among all utility providers and systems – public and investor owned alike. Some areas of particular relevance to utility climate response and resiliency include:
So what are the logical next steps for utilities looking to become more resilient in a changing climate? It starts with understanding the risks specific to the utility’s region, mapping vulnerabilities, and developing not only a plan of action but feedback mechanisms to quickly adapt to an uncertain future.