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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.

Data Points to Hotter Years

Late last year, the World Meteorological Organisation pegged 2011–15 as the hottest five-year period on record. But data from the Met Office suggests 2016 will be warm, too—warmer than the office’s forecast for 2015.

“This forecast suggests that by the end of 2016 we will have seen three record, or near-record years in a row for global temperatures,” said Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office.

El Nino and climate change were among the reasons cited for the increase—an estimated 1.29 and 1.73 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average global temperature in the second half of the 20th century. The Met Office, Express reports, does not expect the record-breaking run to continue indefinitely, but it shows how factors like an El Nino are working together to push temperatures to unprecedented levels of warmth.

Climate Central categorized the changes as a “global warming spurt,” that may be amplified by a slower-moving cycle of the Pacific Ocean—the Pacific Decadal Oscillation—that is also being amplified by climate change and that is the subject of some recent studies.

“Last time we went from a negative to a positive was the mid-70s,” said Gerald Meehl, a National Atmospheric Research scientist, speaking about a warming slowdown linked to Pacific Decadal Oscillation. “Then we had larger rates of global warming from the 70s to the 90s, compared to the previous 30 years. It’s not just an upward sloping line. Sometimes it’s steeper, sometimes it’s slower.”

Clean Power Plan Sees Challengers, Supporters

The deadline for filing legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, triggered a host of new lawsuits targeting the rule. To date, 27 states, along with trade groups and companies, are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to delay implementation of the rule (subscription). Among the arguments—the EPA illegally issued duplicative rules for coal-fired plants and infringed on states’ rights (subscription).

Still, some states are beginning to wade through the rule. And many of the nation’s largest cities are seeking to back it. The National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and others are filing a motion to participate in litigation as amici curiae (friends of the court).

“The acute relevance of climate change to local governments’ responsibilities and activities has led members of the Local Government Coalition to grasp both the need to adapt to climate change and the costs of failing to act to mitigate it,” the filing said. “Prompted by lived experience and by the prospect of future impacts, they [the groups] have made efforts both to adapt to their changing climatic circumstances and to slow or eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions.”

 The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.