(December 3, 2020) A report released today finds that electric utilities in the U.S. have a legal obligation to plan for the dangers of climate change, and that such planning will be critically important for the utilities’ ability to operate in the future.
The report, Climate Risk in the Electricity Sector: Legal Obligations to Advance Climate Resilience Planning by Electric Utilities, was released today by Environmental Defense Fund and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
Among its findings:
- Electric utilities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because of their immense infrastructure and duty to provide safe, reliable electrical service.
- Many electric utilities are already confronting higher temperatures, changing rain patterns, and more intense storms. Those challenges will intensify in the future because of climate change.
- Effective climate resilience planning is necessary to help electric utilities prepare for the future. Failure to plan could mean more climate-induced service disruptions that threaten public health and safety and increase costs for consumers.
Climate resilience planning is also necessary for electric utilities, with relevant implications under state public utility law and under tort law.
- Under state utility law, electric utilities have a duty to ensure adequate service, which includes taking reasonable steps to minimize outages.
- Tort law establishes a duty of care that obligates electric utilities to avoid foreseeable harm when performing acts that could injure others.
The well-documented dangers of climate change mean utilities should consider climate impacts to fulfill these obligations. Utilities could be vulnerable if they fail to address the increasing likelihood of cognizable harms because of climate change. The report finds that few utilities are now doing high quality climate resilience planning, but that the tools and data needed for such planning are increasingly available.
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