By Gary Thomas
Reduced river flows and higher water temperatures due to climate change in the United States and Europe have affected the production of thermoelectric power plant, raising concerns over electricity costs and future energy security.
According to a study reported in Nature Climate Change, thermoelectric power production capacity may experience further reduction of 4% to 16% in the US and 6% to 19% in Europe for the period between 2031 and 2060, because of shortage of cooling water. Reduction in thermoelectric power production is likely to go up by a factor of three on an average.
The thermoelectric power sector consumes 40% of total surface water extractions in the US and 43% in Europe. The climate change will not affect cooling towers, but power plants based on ‘once-through cooling’ will get affected severely. Since these plants use water from the sea, lakes or rivers for cooling turbine condensers, the temperature of the water gets raised, thus causing downstream thermal pollution and affecting aquatic organisms’ life cycles when it is reverted back to its source.
Considering the operating life and significant investments made in thermoelectric power plants, the electricity sector must have the adaptability to handle the cooling water availability issues and make infrastructure investments accordingly.
Pavel Kabat, co-author of the study, informed that using saltwater in place of freshwater is one adaptation strategy. However, this strategy cannot be implemented immediately because of power plants’ life expectancy and the difficulty in shifting plants to an alternative water source. Nevertheless, the strategy must be included into infrastructure planning. Switching to new gas-fired power plants is another option because they have higher efficiency and consume lesser water when compared to fossil fuel or nuclear power plants.
The study emphasizes that the thermoelectric power sector must consider enhanced climate adaptation strategies in order to meet environmental objectives as well as ensure future energy security.