Thermoelectric (nuclear or fossil-fuelled) power plants, supply 91%and 78% of total electricity in the US and Europe respectively,thus disruption to their operation is a significant concern for theenergy sector. A study just published in Nature Climate Change projects further disruption to supply, with a likely decrease inthermoelectric power generating capacity of between 6-19% in Europeand 4-16% in the United States for the period 2031-2060, due tolack of cooling-water. The likelihood of extreme ( 90%)reductions in thermoelectric power generation will, on average,increase by a factor of three. Compared to other water use sectors (e.g. industry, agriculture,domestic use), the thermoelectric power sector is one of thelargest water users in the US (at 40%) and in Europe (43% of totalsurface water withdrawals). Boom Truck Crane
While much of this water is ‘recycled’the power plants rely on consistent volumes of water, at aparticular temperature, to prevent overheating of power plants.Reduced water availability and higher water temperatures — causedby increasing ambient air temperatures associated with climatechange — are therefore significant issues for electricity supply. According to the authors, while recirculation (cooling) towers willbe affected, power plants that rely on ‘once-through cooling’ arethe most vulnerable. These plants pump water direct from rivers,lakes, or the sea, to cool the turbine condensers, water is thenreturned to its source, often at temperatures significantly higherthan when the water entered the plant, causing yet another problem,that of downstream thermal pollution. “Higher electricity prices and disruption to supply aresignificant concerns for the energy sector and consumers, butanother growing concern is the environmental impact of increasingwater temperatures on river ecosystems, affecting, for example,life cycles of aquatic organisms,” says Michelle van Vliet,from Wageningen University and Research Centre. Both the US and Europe have strict environmental standards withregard to the volume of water withdrawn and the temperature of thewater discharged from power plants. Wrecker Tow Truck
Thus warm periods coupled withlow river flows can lead to conflicts between environmentalobjectives and energy production. Additionally, given thesubstantial investments and the long-life expectancy (50-60 years)of thermoelectric power plants, such projections are important forthe electricity sector such that it can adapt to changes in coolingwater availability and plan infrastructure investments accordingly. One adaptation strategy is to reduce reliance on freshwater sourcesand replace with saltwater, according to co-author Pavel Kabat,Director/CEO of the International Institute for Applied SystemsAnalysis (IIASA). “However given the life expectancy of powerplants and the inability to relocate them to an alternative watersource, this is not an immediate solution but should be factoredinto infrastructure planning. China Breakdown Truck
Another option is to switch to newgas-fired power plants that are both more efficient than nuclear-or fossil fuel- power plants and that also use less water.” The study focused on 61 power plants in central and eastern US and35 power plants in Europe, both nuclear and coal-fired power plantswith different cooling systems were included. Considering theprojected increase in demand for electricity in these regions andglobally, the study reinforces the need for improved climateadaptation strategies in the thermoelectric power sector to ensurefuture energy security and environmental objectives are notcompromised. The projections are based on new research that combineshydrological and water temperature models over the twenty-firstcentury with an electricity production model. The models considertwo contrasting scenarios for the energy sector — one of lowlevels of technological change in the energy sector and one thatassumes environmental sustainability and a rapid transition torenewable energy.