The energy supplies for the United States and Europe are at risk, thanks to increasing complications attributed to climate change. In an ironic twist of fate, the rising water temperatures and reduced river flow caused by global warming is lowering the energy output of thermoelectric power plants, such as coal-fired power plants, that require constant supplies of water for cooling purposes. In other words, the problem that some of these power plants help create is now impacting their ability to perform.
Climate change causing blackouts
Extreme drops in power generation, blackouts and full or partial shutdowns of thermoelectric power plants are expected to triple over the next 50 years, according to a report in Nature Climate Change. Reduced flow in rivers and ever increasing water temperatures decrease the cooling capabilities that nuclear and coal-fired power plants have come to rely on. While this study shines a light on the needs for better water conservation methods, it also points out how significant of a weakness thermal cooling is for our existing power grid.
The co-author of the study, Dennis Lettenmaier, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering, said “this study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something that we're going to have to revisit.”
In the summer of 2011, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama had to go offline on more than one occasion because the Tennessee River water was just too hot to provide any cooling capabilities. The study finds this was not an isolated event, in fact the findings predict that energy efficiency or power production in the U.S. will decrease 4 percent to 16 percent and even higher in Europe due to a reduction in cooling water between 2031 and 2060.
The double whammy for dirty power
Reduction in available energy production is not the only problem we face as the first author of the study pointed out. "Higher electricity prices and disruption to supply are significant concerns for the energy sector and consumers, but another growing concern is the environmental impact of increasing water temperatures on river ecosystems, affecting, for example, life cycles of aquatic organisms," said Michelle van Vliet, a doctoral student at the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands.
While most of the water used in the cooling process is recycled, it is discharged at higher temperatures causing downstream thermal pollution. This coupled with regulations on how much water can be used and at what temperatures it can be released will likely cause conflicts between energy production and environmental protections.
Renewable energy and natural gas can help
An obvious solution to the problem is to embrace a renewable energy initiative aimed at reducing some of the burden our power grid is faced with. Most forms of renewable energy have no carbon footprint, which in turn will help curb the global warming trend and remove the dependence on water for cooling.
While renewable energy is a preferred method for those looking to attain a more sustainable living, the study did indicate some alternatives that could help curb the problem in more traditional ways. An example was to relocate some of these nuclear or coal fired plants near salt water supplies, to lower the dependence on the ever valuable freshwater. Additionally, using gas-powered plants could prove to be more efficient than nuclear or fossil fueled plants which also use less water.
The problem is clear; our energy production methods are based on outdated technologies which are inefficient and dirty. This research coupled with actionable plans can create a new influx of energy efficiency jobs that both the U.S. and Europe desperately need. The question is, what will it take for the population at large to decide it is time to change?