The Immense Risk Climate Change Poses to Electricity Supply

by Caroline Chmiel

US and European electricity supply is increasingly defenseless to climate changes. 91% and 78% of the total electricity in the US and Europe, respectively, is produced by thermoelectric power plants, which are nuclear and fossil-fueled. These plants and the processes to get electricity rely on the availability and temperature of water resources for cooling. The changing climate directly affects temperature and water resources, so the heavy reliance on these factors in electricity is at high risk. Freshwater withdrawals for cooling coal, gas and nuclear-fuelled power plants are highest in North America. Next highest worldwide is Europe.

Specifically, dry summers in 2003, 2006 and 2009 revealed the direct affects of warming climate on thermoelectric power plants in Europe when these plants were forced to lower production. The supply of electricity was limited and production costs increases, so rises in electricity prices rose. This also created an adverse economic effect, originating from climate. The US had similar events in 2007-2008 from a lack of surface water for cooling, causing shut down or reduced production of plants. Power plants are highly regulated on water withdrawals and temperature of water. So, conflicts between environmental benchmarks of receiving waters and economic consequences of reducing production have to be quelled and balanced.

This paper predicts future low river flows and increases in water temperature. This combination is especially problematic for cooling-water use. This will be prevalent especially in summer and thermoelectric power plants in southern and southeastern Europe, and southeastern US will be the most affected. Alternatives may be dry cooling systems or non-freshwater sources for cooling, but this may be limited by availability. Therefore, adaption options for electricity plants should be a priority in todays planning to meet the growing demand for electricity. Electricity not only receives impacts of climate change, but also producing emissions adding to climate change.


van Vliet, Michelle T. H., John R. Yearsley, Fulco Ludwig, Stefan Vogele, Dennis P. Lettenmaier, and Pavel Kabat. “Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change.” Nature Climate Change (2012): 676-681. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.




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