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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne climate model helps Pacific Gas and Electric Company combat climate change impacts, including wildfires

Argonne is providing data from its high-resolution climate model to help a major U.S. utility safeguard its current infrastructure and better plan for the future in a changing climate.

Our climate is changing, and those changes not only impact the weather, but its potential effects on critical infrastructure in the United States. Patterns of floods, fires, heat waves and hurricanes are shifting, and forward-thinking companies are taking steps to analyze current and future climate-related risks so they can adapt, improve the resiliency of their infrastructure, and keep critical services up and running.

As California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) provides service to approximately 16 million people across the state. To protect the safety of its customers and communities, and to support the reliability of its electric grid, PG&E is looking for additional tools to assess, forecast and further mitigate wildfire risk.

  Argonne’s research will really advance our knowledge of how weather might affect our assets and operations in the future. It will help us determine where our most vulnerable electric assets are so we can continue to prepare for climate change by strengthening our infrastructure.”  — Debbie Powell, interim head of Electric Operations at PG&E.

As part of that effort, PG&E is sponsoring research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory that is designed to target climate-change models more locally.

Most climate models provide information on how climate will change over a large area, typically 100 square kilometers or more. Although this can help prepare for changes in climate at the global scale, it is not very useful for planning on a regional scale, particularly in a place where weather patterns change dramatically, for example, from one side of a mountain range to another. Additionally, companies find it hard to utilize data from these models to assess the effects of climate change on their infrastructure. Corporations want to know how climate change impacts could affect their operations, customers and the bottom line.

In order to address this challenge, scientists at Argonne developed a detailed climate model that projects future climate in a 12 km grid across the entire United States using physics-based computational models. Harnessing the power of Argonne’s supercomputing resources, they took some of the most accurate global climate models available at 100 km grid cells and made them work over a much smaller scale, allowing for regional modeling of current and future climate conditions.

Now, Argonne is using that model to determine changes in fine-scale meteorological data that will help PG&E plan for the future of climate change in California, with a particular focus on understanding the conditions that produce wildfires, and how those conditions will change in California through 2050.

Argonne is providing data from its climate model of specific meteorological parameters that impact fire risk under current and future conditions, such as high wind speeds associated with Diablo winds, low humidity, primary wind direction, soil moisture and changes in precipitation. In addition, PG&E will combine Argonne’s data with existing science on how climate change will affect heat and precipitation. PG&E’s meteorologists and operations experts will integrate those combined data sets into models for more informed decisions to safeguard customers, communities and the grid.  

Our goal is to translate this huge data set we created into useable data products so that others can use it to estimate their impacts and risk,” said Rao Kotamarthi, chief scientist and head of the Department of Atmospheric Science and Climate Research at Argonne.

Argonne’s data will help refine how utility companies like PG&E respond to increasingly common extreme weather.

Argonne’s research will really advance our knowledge of how weather might affect our assets and operations in the future,” said Debbie Powell, interim head of Electric Operations at PG&E. It will help us determine where our most vulnerable electric assets are so we can continue to prepare for climate change by strengthening our infrastructure.”

That means determining how climate change might especially influence the intense winds that can affect the grid.

PG&E’s service area is experiencing substantial climate challenges,” said Heather Rock, PG&E’s Climate Resilience chief. In 2020, Northern and Central California shattered records for wind speeds during the summer and fall, as well as the number of acres consumed by wind-driven wildfires. We’re particularly interested in how Argonne’s climate modeling focuses on analyzing the effects of winds on PG&E’s grid now and in the future.”

The data set that experts are mining for this information truly is enormous. Argonne’s climate model is 700 terabytes (enough to fill more than 148,000 DVDs) and contains a massive amount of useful information, such as future levels of precipitation and soil moisture.

For PG&E, using this information to plan and adapt for climate change could help refine the company’s system-hardening strategies.  

Nearly one-third of PG&E’s 106,681 miles of electric distribution lines and 18,466 miles of interconnected transmission lines are now in High Fire-Threat Districts, as designated by the California Public Utilities Commission. That underlines the importance of ongoing system-hardening efforts, including installation of stronger and more resilient utility poles and covered power lines.

PG&E has committed to system-hardening of distribution lines, but Argonne’s wind-related climate modeling could shape additional efforts to protect the company’s electric infrastructure.

This partnership is providing PG&E with data and information they can use to incorporate projections of future climate into their own modeling efforts, and therefore better inform their own climate resilience planning efforts,” said Thomas Wall, program lead for Engineering & Applied Resilience at Argonne. They’re getting from Argonne projections of future climate variables that simply aren’t available anywhere else.”

Meanwhile, Argonne is learning about the types of data and information that is useful to users. Historically, there has been a disconnect between what climate modelers produce (for example, average daytime temperature data meant to inform global scale assessments) and what end users actually need to inform decisions or adapt responses to projections of future climate (for example, the number of consecutive days over 95 degrees).

It’s through these types of partnerships that we better understand what types of climate model data are most useful to the broader community. And that informs not only how we produce data, but also how we build and run models,” said Wall.

To learn more, contact partners@​anl.​gov.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.