Power plants are vulnerable to climate change, study says

Climate change could hinder the efficiency of nuclear and coal-fired power plants in the future and could mean higher costs and a less reliable power grid, according to an article published in Nature Climate Change.

The article found climate change is likely to cause water temperatures to rise over the next 50 years, and the warmer temperatures may cause power plants to operate below full power generating capacity. The study said climate change could reduce capacity by 4 to 16 percent in the U.S. from 2030 to 2060.

“This study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something that we’re going to have to revisit,” said co-author Dennis Lettenmaier, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Power plants use nuclear and fossil fuels to heat water into steam that turns a turbine to produce electricity. The water must be below a specific temperature to prevent the turbines from overheating.

The problem has already forced some plants in the U.S. to close temporarily.

Last year, at least one North Texas power plant dealt with problems because its reservoir that the plant drew water from did not sufficiently cool overnight. The Browns Ferry plant in Alabama also had to shutdown last summer because of water temperature issues.

“The worst-case scenarios in the Southeast come from heat waves where you need the power for air conditioning,” Lettenmaier wrote. “If you have really high power demand and the river’s temperature is too high so you need to shut your power plant down, you have a problem.”

The study used hydrological and water temperatures models developed by Lettenmaier and co-author John Yearsley, a University of Wisconsin engineering professor, to predict future river flow levels and water temperatures.

Those forecasts were combined with electricity production models and two different climate change forecasts to come to the group’s conclusion.

The Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility consortium, arrived at a similar conclusion in 1995, according to The New York Times. The nonprofit found warmer weather would make electricity harder to generate and peaks in electricity demand even higher.

The Nature Climate Change study said there didn’t appear to be any clear solutions to the problems. Plants could switch to new natural gas-fired power plants that are more efficient and use less water.