Study Says Electricity Production Vulnerable to Climate Change

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that climate-change-related water disruptions could significantly decrease electricity production by the hydropower stations and thermoelectric (nuclear, fossil-fueled, biomass-fueled) plants that account for 98 percent of production around the world. Because the plants need water to cool generators and pump power at dams, they are vulnerable to lower river levels and warmer water temperatures, according to researchers at Wageningen University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). These conditions could reduce generating capacity by as much as 74 percent in hydro plants and 86 percent in thermoelectric plants between 2040 and 2069.

“This is the first study of its kind to examine the linkages between climate change, water resources and electricity production on a global scale,” said co-author and IIASA Energy Program Director Keywan Riahi (subscription). “We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate.”

The study, which used computer modeling and data from more than 24,000 hydropower plants and nearly 1,500 thermoelectric plants, indicates that the areas most at risk of decreases in usable capacity for electricity production are the United States, southern and central Europe, Southeast Asia, southern parts of South America, Africa and Australia—regions where the study authors say big increases in water temperature will combine with projected decreases in mean annual streamflow.

The potential water supply shortfall coincides with a predicted doubling in demand for water for power generation over the next 40 years.

The study also explored adaptation measures, concluding that increases in power plant efficiency and switches in cooling sources would reduce most regions’ vulnerability to water constraints as would improved cross-sectoral water management during drought periods.

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