Fossil fuel power plants are one of the main causes of climate change, responsible for pumping out polluting greenhouse gasses as they provide the world’s electricity supply.
But they could also be extremely vulnerable to the dramatic impacts of climate change, as rivers and streams used to cool power plants dwindle and waters grow warmer, according to a new study published today in Nature Climate Change.
According to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), over 98 per cent of the world’s electricity production comes from hydropower and thermoelectric power – nuclear, fossil-fuelled, biomass-fuelled power plants – all of which could face major disruption from increasing water scarcity.
Using data from tens of thousands of power plants around the world, the study found heatwaves and droughts caused by climate change could reduce global electricity capacity by 60 per cent between 2040 and 2069. The potential shortfall in water supplies coincides with a predicted doubling in demand for water for power generation over the next 40 years, the report said, adding that the global economy could be facing an era of severe power shortages as a result.
The study is the first of its kind to examine the link between climate change, water resources, and electricity production at a global scale, according to Keywan Riah, co-author of the study. “We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate,” he said.
Hydropower plants rely on water to move turbines to generate electricity, while thermoelectric plants use water to cool generation units. Both could be severely impacted by climate disruption: capacity could be reduced by up to 74 per cent in hydro plants and 86 per cent in thermoelectric plants, according to the study.
The problems could also fluctuate according to the season, with summer months bringing higher likelihood of droughts and warmer water temperatures, making it more difficult to cool overheating plants at a time when demand for power from air conditioning units peaks.
Certain regions are more vulnerable than others, said Michelle Van Vliet, the study’s lead author. “In particular the United States, southern South America, southern Africa, central and southern Europe, Southeast Asia and southern Australia are vulnerable regions, because declines in mean annual streamflow are projected combined with strong increases in water temperature under changing climate,” she said. “This reduces the potential for both hydropower and thermoelectric power generation in these regions.”
In the next few decades the electricity sector will need to turn its attention to how it plans to adapt to a changing climate, said Van Vliet. “In order to sustain water and energy security in the next decades, the electricity focus will need to increase their focus on climate change adaptation in addition to mitigation,” he said.
Potential adaption measures include switching from using freshwater cooling to using seawater where possible, or converting coal-fired plants into gas-fired stations which require less water for cooling, alongside other steps to improve efficiency. If plants became just 10 per cent more efficient at generating electricity they could offset the chance of production constraints, the study found.
Alongside the operational measures the researchers also recommend better water management in drought-stricken regions. Plant developers should also build in resilience to water scarcity into plans, the study suggests, as the plants built now are likely to stay in use for several decades.
However, the report will also provide further ammunition for renewable energy developers, who have long argued that in some ways wind turbines and solar panels can bolster energy security.
So often billed as the cause of global warming, it is all too easy to forget that the world’s power plants may prove just as vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change as other systems. This study is a clear reminder that alongside efforts to cut carbon emissions, a plan is urgently needed for boosting the resilience of our power system in the face of coming climate disruption.
Source: Climate Change
Original article: How climate change could threaten global electricity production