Every sector of the U.S. economy depends on the availability of ready-to-use energy. Increasingly, climate change and extreme weather events threaten the energy system with more frequent and longer-lasting power outages that can lead to cascading impacts across other sectors.

    Key points:

  • Extreme weather events are the main cause of power outages and a constant hazard to the nation’s energy system. Due to climate change, future extreme events that can cause power outages are projected to be more frequent and last longer.
  • The reliability, security, and resilience of the energy system underpin virtually every sector of the U.S. economy. Power outages can initiate cascading impacts across other critical sectors, potentially affecting our economic and national security.
  • Changes in energy technologies, markets, and policies are affecting the energy system’s vulnerabilities to climate change and extreme weather. Some of these changes increase reliability and resilience, while others result in additional vulnerabilities.
  • A resilient energy supply is increasingly important to our nation as telecommunications, transportation, and other critical systems are more interconnected than ever.
  • Enhancing energy security, reliability, and resilience to the effects of climate change and extreme weather will move forward through investments by utilities and their communities. Private and public–private partnerships can accelerate the pace, scale, and scope of innovation in building the resilience of the energy system.

Risks to energy security

Extreme weather events—the frequency and intensity of which are a product of the climate system within which they occur—have the potential to interrupt normal functions of the energy system. Damage or delays that occur due to extreme events can suspend energy generation, severe transmission lines, interfere with fuel production and distribution, and cause fuel and electricity shortages or price spikes. Negative impacts from these events are expected to continue growing in frequency and severity over the coming century.

Scene showing a city demanding energy and the system that generates and supplies it

Extreme weather and climate change have the potential to impact all components of the energy system, from fuel production and distribution to electricity generation, transmission, and demand. 

Equipment and infrastructure used in the production, generation, transmission, and distribution of energy resources are constantly exposed to the elements. High winds threaten damage to power lines. Flooding from extreme precipitation can undermine the foundations of energy infrastructure, and inundate energy facilities that are commonly located along rivers. When energy assets fail, power outages can evolve into widespread energy disruption that can take weeks to resolve—at significant cost to utilities—and potentially affect the nation’s economic and national security

At the same time, the energy sector is undergoing substantial policy-, market-, and technology-driven changes. Natural gas and renewable resources are moving to the forefront as energy sources and efforts to improve efficiency continue to expand, forcing changes to the design and operation of infrastructure and the electrical grid. While deliberate actions are being taken to enhance energy security, reliability, and resilience with respect to the effects of climate change through integrated planning, innovative energy technologies, and public–private partnerships, much work remains to establish a climate-ready energy system that addresses present and future risks.

Energy Delivery

A major component of energy supply is the delivery of energy from producers to consumers. National and regional networks distribute raw materials from mines and wells to processing plants and utilities, and local networks distribute electricity and processed fuels to consumers. The system is large, complex, and interdependent. More than 140,000 miles of railways are used to move crude petroleum, refined petroleum products, liquefied natural gas, and coal across the country. Additionally, 2.6 million miles of pipelines, 414 natural gas storage facilities, and 330 ports handle crude petroleum and refined petroleum products. For delivery to consumers, the country has more than 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, and 6.3 million more miles of distribution lines. Climate-related disruptions to any of these systems can increase costs and/or interrupt services to consumers.

Photo of a tanker being loaded with crude oil

A tanker is loaded with crude oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System at the Valdez Marine Terminal in Alaska.

Climate change and energy

Climate change and extreme weather events are already affecting energy consumption and supply. Heat waves have become more frequent and intense, especially in the West, and these events increase energy consumption due to greater use of air conditioning. Increased demand can also affect energy-generating facilities, increasing the frequency of blackouts and brownouts. Extreme weather events and water shortages can also interrupt energy supply.

Projected temperature change for mid- and late-century under two scenarios

Projected increases in annual average temperature for two scenarios, shown as the difference between the average for mid- and late- 21st century and recent average temperature.

As temperatures increase, additional changes are likely to affect the energy sector in the future. Throughout the country, climate projections suggest that hot days will become hotter and heat waves will last longer, exacerbating demand for energy to cool homes and workplaces. Under a scenario of continued increases in emissions, the hottest days in some regions will be up to 15°F warmer than current conditions.

Advanced preparation for changing conditions could increase the resilience of the energy sector or minimize impacts on consumers. For example, actions that reduce energy use would minimize some of the stresses on energy infrastructure. Improved siting and operations planning, modification of existing energy equipment, deployment of new energy technologies and equipment, and increased generation/transmission of energy could enhance climate resilience and provide more energy security.

The preceding text is excerpted and abridged from:

Climate data tools for Energy Utilities

Energy Sector Reports

Learn more

To learn more about the impacts of climate change and variability on energy supply and use, visit the subtopic pages:

Banner Image Credit
Wind turbines in Weatherford, Oklahoma, by Christopher Neel, CC BY 2.0,
Last modified
15 September 2019 - 11:34am