Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online

In the United States and Europe, at present 91% and 78% (ref. 1) of the total electricity is produced by thermoelectric (nuclear and fossil-fuelled) power plants, which directly depend on the availability and temperature of water resources for cooling. 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 scarcity2, 3, 4. Here we show that thermoelectric power in Europe and the United States is vulnerable to climate change owing to the combined impacts of lower summer river flows and higher river water temperatures. Using a physically based hydrological and water temperature modelling framework in combination with an electricity production model, we show a summer average decrease in capacity of power plants of 6.3–19% in Europe and 4.4–16% in the United States depending on cooling system type and climate scenario for 2031–2060. In addition, probabilities of extreme (>90%) reductions in thermoelectric power production will on average increase by a factor of three. Considering the increase in future electricity demand, there is a strong need for improved climate adaptation strategies in the thermoelectric power sector to assure futureenergy security.

At a glance


  1. Changes in low river flows.
    Figure 1: Changes in low river flows.

    a,b, Projected changes in low flows (10th percentile of daily distribution of river flow) for the 2040s (2031–2060) and 2080s (2071–2100) relative to the control period (1971–2000) in the US and Europe (a) and mean annual cycles and probability distribution functions (PDFs) of daily river flow for a selected station in the Ohio River (US) and Danube River (Europe) for the control and future periods (b).

  2. Increases in river water temperatures (Tw) and exceeded water temperature limits.
    Figure 2: Increases in river water temperatures (Tw) and exceeded water temperature limits.

    ac, Projected changes in mean river water temperature (a) and mean number of days per year that the 23°C (for Europe) and 27°C (for the US) inlet water temperature limit is exceeded for the 2040s (2031–2060) and 2080s (2071–2100) relative to the control period (1971–2000) (b). Regions with projected decreases in low flows of more than 25% are hatched. c, Mean annual cycles of daily water temperature and probability distribution functions (PDFs) of water temperature for selected stations in the Missouri River (US) and Danube River (Europe) for the control and future periods.

  3. Changes in usable capacity of thermoelectric power plants.
    Figure 3: Changes in usable capacity of thermoelectric power plants.

    a, Projected changes in summer mean usable capacity of power plants in the US and Europe for the SRES A2 emissions scenario for the 2040s (2031–2060) relative to the control period (1971–2000). b, Mean annual cycles of usable capacity and return periods of production reductions for the New Madrid power station in the US (coal power plant with installed capacity of 1,200MW using once-through cooling with water from Mississippi River) and Civaux power station in France (nuclear power plant with installed capacity of 3,122MW using recirculation (tower) cooling with water from the Vienne (Loire) River).


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Author information


  1. Earth System Science and Climate Change, Wageningen University and Research Centre, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Michelle T. H. van Vliet,
    • Fulco Ludwig &
    • Pavel Kabat
  2. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • John R. Yearsley &
    • Dennis P. Lettenmaier
  3. Forschungszentrum Jülich, Institute of Energy and Climate Research—System Analyses and Technology Evaluation, D-52425 Jülich, Germany

    • Stefan Vögele
  4. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria

    • Pavel Kabat


M.T.H.v.V., P.K., D.P.L. and F.L. designed the study. M.T.H.v.V. performed all analyses and drafted the manuscript. J.R.Y. contributed to the model development. S.V. prepared and provided data sets of thermoelectric power plants. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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