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On Reflection: Climate research is key to a secure energy supply

The UK government's Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) has the challenging role of establishing the form of the country's future energy-generation mix. A combination of different technologies is needed to ensure a resilient and affordable energy supply while meeting the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

(Ikon Images/Alamy)
(Ikon Images/Alamy)

The growth in renewable energy generation of recent years is planned to increase with many onshore and offshore wind, bio energy and large-scale solar PV projects in development. The daily variability in weather conditions across the UK has a notable effect on total energy demand and, with the growth of weather-dependent renewables, will increasingly affect supply.

This makes it vitally important for us to understand the relationships between weather and climate, and renewable energy generation and demand. The Met Office has a programme of work to answer some of the key science questions relevant to energy policy.

For individual and combined renewable technologies, we need to understand how variable the energy generation can be in different places and over different time scales. Fortunately, weather observations and modelling data sets for the UK go back more than 100 years, providing a valuable source of information to better understand recent and historical climate variability. We can see that the cold and calm winters of the late nineteenth century give examples of more extreme climate conditions than those experienced in living memory and could provide a good test-case for current and future infrastructure.

Different meteorological phenomena bring different challenges to balancing energy supply and demand. The position of low and high-pressure systems relative to the UK dictates to a large extent the temperatures and wind speeds experienced on the ground. Many questions were raised about the ability of wind power to help meet future winter peak electricity demands after the two cold winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11. These winters featured long periods of very cold temperatures combined with low winds, both of which are associated with long-lasting atmospheric high pressure.

However, not all high-pressure systems in winter bring cold and calm conditions. We are exploring which weather patterns are responsible for energy resilience problems, helping Decc to understand the risk and magnitude of such events, their spatial extent and for how long they are likely to have an impact. Other topics of research include investigating the relationships between different renewable sources to understand generation stability through time and which weather conditions contribute most to electricity supply exceeding demand.

The ability to predict the weather and the consequent generation of renewable energy over the coming day, week, month, season and longer is of great value. Understanding the causes of the weather and climate variability will improve the quality of these predictions.

Climate variability in different parts of the world is connected through large-scale ocean and atmosphere interactions, such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Predicting these oscillations will help improve seasonal and annual forecasts. Consideration of the impacts of man-made climate change on renewable-energy generation becomes important for energy planning beyond 2040.

Only an improved knowledge of energy-relevant weather and climate will allow industry and government to plan for, and cope with, unusual weather events.

Hazel Thornton is manager of the climate adaptation team at the Met Office

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