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Power plants most vulnerable to water scarcity.

Who knew? Power plants use 40% of U.S. freshwater supplies. How will they cope with a drier climate? Who will keep the lights on when the water runs out?


Notes: Thermoelectric plants (nuclear, coal and gas) make up roughly 90 percent of the U.S. electricity mix and they use 40 percent of the nation’s freshwater supplies. Climate change will reduce freshwater supplies and threaten power plants that use water for cooling.

Researchers note that during recent warm, dry summers several thermoelectric power plants in Europe and the southeastern United States were forced to reduce production owing to cooling-water scarcity.

The researchers used a physically based hydrological and water temperature modelling framework in combination with an electricity production model, to show a summer average decrease in capacity of power plants of 4.4–16% in the United States depending on cooling system type and climate scenario for 2031–2060.

They found that probabilities of extreme (>90%) reductions in thermoelectric power production will on average increase by a factor of three.

Comment: The large amount of freshwater used to produce electricity is not widely known. Renewables like wind, solar and hydro are not as vulnerable to water shortages as nuclear, coal and gas generating plants.

Renewable energy can help reduce the extent of climate change AND also help adapt to the changes that can't be avoided.


Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change. Michelle T. H. van Vliet, John R. Yearsley, Fulco Ludwig, Stefan Vögele, Dennis P. Lettenmaier & Pavel Kabat. Nature Climate Change (2012) Published online

Image source: Tennessee Valley Authority

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Gillian King