Adaptive Renewables: Increasing Resilience with Clean Energy

by Sara Holzknecht

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The turbulent events of this year continue to drive home the need for rapid decarbonization. The West coast has again been ravaged by devastating fires, while the relentless Atlantic hurricane season has run out of names in the English alphabet and turned to the Greek alphabet as it continues. It’s long been clear we need a rapid build out of clean energy infrastructure, but now we must do it in the face of increasing threats from our changing climate. This type of transition will require significant investment, yet could prevent far greater potential economic losses to be faced if it isn’t made.

What if clean energy generation could make us more resilient, not just because we are producing energy in a more sustainable way, but with co-benefits that bridge the gap between climate mitigation and adaptation? What if renewables themselves provided protection from the threats of a destabilized climate?

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Often, the climate arena is neatly divided into these two camps: mitigation and adaptation. While there has been some interplay between the two, we stand presently at a crossroads where it’s no longer a question of ‘either/or,’ but rather ‘both/and.’ We need clean energy solutions, and we need community resilience to our changing climate.

Each category of renewables, including wind, solar, tidal, wave, and hydropower offers opportunities for advancing community adaptation.These ‘adaptive renewables’ offer a path forward that does not require choosing between resilience and decarbonization, and rightly so; we no longer have the luxury of this choice.

For example, deploying rooftop solar arrays can decrease the Urban Heat Island effect in cities, reducing the need for energy consumption required for cooling, as well as the health impacts of rising temperatures. In rural areas, solar arrays increase crop yield when used in an agrivoltaics format, with shade tolerant crops such as lettuce seeing potential for better harvests, and increased output by the solar installations as well.

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Agrivoltaics- co-located farming and PV modules (Dinesh & Pearce, 2016.)

Another area with great potential benefit to community resilience is offshore wind. Siting offshore wind farms along hurricane pathways could result in wind speed reduction of as much as 90% and storm surge by 79% (Archer et al, 2018.) Onshore precipitation could also experience large scale decreases from hurricanes passing a wind farm, with modelling showing precipitation from Hurricane Harvey could have been reduced by 20% (Jacobson et al, 2014.) Taken together, consideration of these factors could help drive siting decisions that aid in storm damage and coastal erosion reduction.

In an era of ever increasing land use needs, likely to soon spill over into the marine environment, growing spatial output with multi-use models in the food-water-energy-climate nexus, and implementing hybrid energy models will provide another important pathway for building resilience. For example, adding floating solar panels on the reservoirs of existing hydropower projects (or ‘floatavoltaics’), and installing solar on downstream dam faces where possible leverages existing transmission infrastructure, reducing funding needed to bring clean energy to customers. Other opportunities for hybrid energy include offshore wind turbines with wave energy converters in their bases, and co-locating wind and solar energy generation to again take advantage of transmission infrastructure.

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Hybrid floating PV and hydropower model (Lee et al, 2020)

We can leverage renewables within the adaptation space, and it’s in our interest to do so as proactively as possible. Drawing together opportunities for adaptation in each of the renewables sectors, we can increase clean energy and community resilience in tandem. As we scale up renewables, doing so with an eye to ever-evolving climate adaptation needs offers tremendous potential to prepare our communities for the future.

Sara Holzknecht is a Masters of Science candidate in the Energy and Climate Policy program at Johns Hopkins University. She is the Washington State Campaign Organizer for ocean advocacy NGO Oceana, as well as a co-founder of 350 Eastside, a chapter of 350.org on Seattle’s Eastside. She also serves as part of the leadership committee establishing a new Public Utility District in east King County via ballot initiative in 2021, replacing Puget Sound Energy’s majority fossil fuel energy mix. She can be reached at sara@350eastside.org.

References:

Archer et al. (2018.) Precipitation Reduction During Hurricane Harvey with Simulated Offshore Wind Farms. Environmental Research Letters. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aad245/meta

Dinesh, H. & Pearce, J. (2016.) The Potential of Agrivoltaic Systems. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews (54), 299–308. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2015.10.024

Jacobson et al. (2014.) Taming Hurricanes with Arrays of Offshore Wind Turbines. Nature Climate Change (4), 195–200. https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2120

Lee et al. (2020.) Hybrid Floating Solar Photovoltaics- Hydropower Systems: Benefits and Global Assessment of Technical Potential. Renewable Energy, 162, 1415–1427. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.renene.2020.08.080

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