Characklis and team awarded $2.5M NSF grant to study flood, drought conditions in Oregon

February 2, 2018

Dr. Gregory Characklis

Dr. Gregory Characklis

Gregory Characklis, PhD, director of the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems and Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, is part of a team awarded $2.5 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Characklis and colleagues will study the variability of flood and drought conditions in the Willamette River Basin in northwestern Oregon and the effects of those conditions on food, water and energy production in the region.

The grant is part of the NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food-Energy-Water Systems (INFEWS) initiative, which seeks to catalyze interdisciplinary research to secure the future of food, energy and water systems while maintaining Earth’s vital physical and natural systems.

The grant is the second Characklis has received from the highly competitive INFEWS program. He and current co-principal investigator Jordan Kern, PhD, research assistant professor at the UNC Institute for the Environment, also led a 2016 effort that resulted in another INFEWS award to study drought’s impact on energy and agricultural production in California.

Oregon State University is the lead institution on the new grant, but a significant portion of the research activity will take place at UNC-Chapel Hill. Characklis and colleagues will use award funds to assess financial risks associated with disruptions to water and energy systems as a consequence of extreme hydrologic conditions.

“Two-thirds of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest is generated by hydropower,” said Characklis. “Variability in snow and rain fall have a huge impact on the amount of electricity produced by this primary source. Under very wet and very dry conditions, the system must adapt quickly, but these adaptations have financial consequences that can be difficult to manage.”

When water is scarce, more expensive alternative energy sources are needed to support demand. During very wet years, hydropower turbines must be run continuously to keep reservoirs from overflowing. This saturates the electricity grid and forces other generators, typically wind producers, to shut down. The resulting losses can create financial risks that discourage investments in renewable energy.

The UNC team will translate the behavior of the hydrologic system into financial impacts and then develop novel strategies to help the region manage financial consequences of hydrologic uncertainty for both generators and consumers.

“Better management of financial risks often can have positive environmental benefits—in this case, by providing the financial stability that facilitates more renewable energy development,” Kern said.

The Center on Financial Risk in Environment Systems is a newly launched partnership between the Gillings School’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and the UNC Institute for the Environment. The center aims to better understand the links between financial losses and drought, hurricanes and other extreme environmental events through integrated modeling of natural, engineered, economic and financial systems.

A version of this article, written by Emily Williams, was posted originally on the UNC Institute for the Environment website


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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