The Electricity Sector Climate Information (ESCI) project was initiated in response to the Independent review into the future security of the National Electricity Market: Blueprint for the future (known as the ‘Finkel Review’) The project, funded by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and was undertaken by climate scientists from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology in collaboration with the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), and in partnership with electricity sector stakeholders. It ran from 2019 to 2021.
The project has delivered high resolution (5–12 km) climate projection data across the National Electricity Market (NEM) at sub-daily intervals to the year 2100. The project has also tailored guidance and insights to enable the electricity sector to assess climate risks and to plan for the future with greater confidence.1
As a result of the ESCI project, climate risk—including risk related to future weather—can now be consistently integrated into sector planning and risk modelling using a standard process and guidance.
Weather and electricity are interconnected. Weather is the 'fuel' for solar, wind and hydro electricity generation. Electricity demand is strongly dependent on temperature. Electricity infrastructure performance is directly affected by hazards such as extreme heat, droughts and severe winds; there are also acute, systemic consequences from severe and high-impact weather.
The AEMC reports that 95.6% of blackouts are caused by sudden poles and wires breakdowns in the grid—typically caused by weather events such as storms and bushfires.
The impacts of climate change on Australia's future energy system will become increasingly significant (Table 1).
Changing climate hazard
Electricity system vulnerability
Increases in average and extreme temperature (very high scientific confidence).
Reduces generator and network capacity, increases demand, increases failure rates and maintenance and replacement costs.
Increased frequency and severity of bushfires
Increase in extreme fire weather (medium-high confidence).
Threat to most assets, with a particularly high operational risk to transmission and distribution lines due to heat and smoke.
Decrease in number of high wind events and cyclone frequency, possible increase in severe Category 4–5 cyclones (low-medium confidence).
High winds reduce the capacity and threaten the integrity of transmission lines, making it an important consideration for network capacity assessments and design specifications. Wind generation is sensitive to a reduction in average wind-speed as well as to the frequency and magnitude of destructive gusts.
Increased variability or reduction in rainfall, dam inflows and flooding
Decrease in winter/spring rainfall and increase in extreme rainfall events (medium confidence).
Reduces water available for hydro generation. Increases requirement for desalination and associated energy demand. Reduced soil moisture may increase damage from lightning and reduce thermal conductivity of underground power lines.
Compound extreme events
Increase in frequency and magnitude (low confidence).
Extremes in multiple climate variables occurring simultaneously or in close sequence can cause substantial disruption. These events can be exacerbated by associated non-climatic factors such as infrastructure failure or staff fatigue.
A climate risk assessment is likely to be relevant for:
While climate change information is most relevant for mid- to long-term planning (greater than 10 years), some climate risks are becoming apparent over shorter periods. Extreme temperatures are becoming more frequent, which has implications for consumer demand forecasts. Early evidence of increasing bushfire risks has implications for fuel load management (Figure 1). Climate change is superimposed on natural weather and climate variability,2 and while historical records provide a good indication of where risks may emerge, future risks are likely to be underestimated.
Figure 1 Change in the number of dangerous fire weather days from 1950 to 2010. (Source: Dowdy 2020 )
The ESCI project is providing a credible, relevant, quality-assured framework for assessing the risk that climate change presents to critical NEM infrastructure and capacity so that the impacts of climate change can be assessed and, where practicable, mitigated. This framework includes:
Figure 2 shows the ESCI climate risk assessment method. The steps incorporate elements from:
More information about the framework is available in the ESCI User Guidance
Figure 2 The ESCI Climate Risk Assessment Framework—based on ISO 31000 and incorporating elements from other relevant risk and adaptation frameworks.
Note: Where the climate risk assessment framework, and the recommended climate information, indicate a significant risk from climate change, the project recommends that sector organisations consult with specialist climate service providers.
The project worked with a reference group of stakeholders from across the electricity sector to develop the climate risk assessment framework and supporting documentation. This reference group provided the climate-sensitive decisions and processes for the exemplar case studies and worked with the project to complete the risk assessments.
Other contributors to the project and case studies included representatives from the Australian Energy Market Operator, electricity generators, transmission network service providers, distribution network service providers, the Energy Network Association, consultants, consumer groups and academia.
The ESCI recommended approach to assessing the risk that climate change presents to the National Electricity Market is rigorous and will continue to be relevant as these risks change. The guidance material explains in detail how to identify relevant climate information, appropriate scenarios for future risk assessments and the importance of incorporating a range of projections.
However, climate projections are derived from climate models that have limitations. Uncertainties at regional and local scales over the next decade are strongly influenced by natural variability, which is hard to predict. Greenhouse gas emissions pathways change depending on global climate policy, economics, technology and behaviour; the atmosphere responds to changes in greenhouse gases in ways that are non-linear, and so the projections of future climate trends and extremes in climate hazards themselves will change.
The CMIP5 global climate models (GCMs) used by the project have coarse-resolution (about 100–150 km between data points) and provide useful information over the next two decades and beyond at global and continental scales. Some GCMs include regional errors, so the project has selected a subset of GCMs that perform well in the Australian region. Nevertheless, GCMs cannot adequately represent weather-scale (1–10 km) phenomena, so downscaling methods have been used.3 However, downscaled simulations may include regional errors, especially at the weather scale, the numerical precision of these data must not be confused with accuracy. The downscaled projections should be considered indicative, rather than precise, based on the best available information. Where possible, uncertainties have been estimated and confidence ratings have been provided.
Data from a new set of CMIP6 GCMs is currently being evaluated4 and new downscaling is being developed and evaluated. Over the coming decade, it is hoped that a paradigm shift in GCMs will enable simulations much finer resolution, avoiding the need for downscaling. Therefore, improved data sets are in the pipeline.
Finally, there are limits to our understanding of weather phenomena, and the chaotic nature of the atmosphere means that some phenomena are inherently unpredictable. Project time and resource constraints also necessarily limit the scope of the project. Therefore, topics which the ESCI project does not cover are:
1 Please see the Disclaimer and Licence Terms
2 See ESCI Key Concept Climate projection confidence and uncertainty.
3 See ESCI Key Concept Climate models and downscaling.
4 See ESCI Key Concept CMIP 6 projections.
5 See ESCI Technical Report Using compound extreme event case studies for decision-making, also ESCI case study—impact of extremes.