Power-generation system vulnerability and adaptation to changes in climate and water resources

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Volume:
6,
Pages:
375–380
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nclimate2903
Received
Accepted
Published online

Hydropower and thermoelectric power together contribute 98% of the worlds electricity generation at present1. These power-generating technologies both strongly depend on water availability, and water temperature for cooling also plays a critical role for thermoelectric power generation. Climate change and resulting changes in water resources will therefore affect power generation while energy demands continue to increase with economic development and a growing world population. Here we present a global assessment of the vulnerability of the worlds current hydropower and thermoelectric power-generation system to changing climate and water resources, and test adaptation options for sustainable water–energy security during the twenty-first century. Using a coupled hydrological–electricity modelling framework with data on 24,515 hydropower and 1,427 thermoelectric power plants, we show reductions in usable capacity for 61–74% of the hydropower plants and 81–86% of the thermoelectric power plants worldwide for 2040–2069. However, adaptation options such as increased plant efficiencies, replacement of cooling system types and fuel switches are effective alternatives to reduce the assessed vulnerability to changing climate and freshwater resources. Transitions in the electricity sector with a stronger focus on adaptation, in addition to mitigation, are thus highly recommended to sustain water–energy security in the coming decades.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Contribution of hydropower and thermoelectric power to total electricity generation in different regions worldwide.
    Figure 1: Contribution of hydropower and thermoelectric power to total electricity generation in different regions worldwide.

    a,b, Absolute values (in 106MWh; a) and the relative contribution (%; b) of hydropower (blue) and total thermoelectric (fossil, nuclear, biomass and geothermal) (red) calculated on the basis of data from the US Energy Information Administration1 for the year 2010.

  2. Impacts of climate change on annual mean streamflow and water temperature.
    Figure 2: Impacts of climate change on annual mean streamflow and water temperature.

    a,b, Maps of changes in streamflow (a) and water temperature (b) for RCP8.5 for 2040–2069 (2050s) relative to the control period 1971–2000. Trends in changes for 1971–2099 are presented based on the GCM-ensemble mean results (thick lines) and for the five individual GCMs separately (thin dotted lines) for both RCP2.6 (orange) and RCP8.5 (red). Trends per continent were assessed by calculating mean values in streamflow and water temperature over all continent grid cells. Future changes were then calculated relative to the control period 1971–2000.

  3. Impacts of climate and water resources change on annual mean usable capacity of current hydropower and thermoelectric power plants.
    Figure 3: Impacts of climate and water resources change on annual mean usable capacity of current hydropower and thermoelectric power plants.

    a,b, Relative changes in annual mean usable capacity of hydropower plants (a) and thermoelectric power plants (b) for RCP2.6 and RCP8.5 for 2010–2039 (2020s) and 2040–2069 (2050s) relative to the control period 1971–2000. c, Global trends of changes in annual mean hydropower and thermoelectric power usable capacity for 1971–2099 based on the GCM-ensemble mean results (thick lines) and for the five individual GCMs separately (thin dotted lines) for both RCP2.6 (orange) and RCP8.5 (red).

  4. Impacts of adaptation options on power-generation vulnerability to water constraints under climate change.
    Figure 4: Impacts of adaptation options on power-generation vulnerability to water constraints under climate change.

    a,b, Relative changes for the baseline settings and for various adaptation options of hydropower (a) and thermoelectric power (b). The GCM-ensemble mean changes are presented by the bars. In addition, changes for the five individual GCM experiments for RCP8.5 (2050s) are presented to show the range between the five different GCM experiments (see Supplementary Section 5 and Supplementary Tables 4 and 5 for more detailed results).

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Earth System Science, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Michelle T. H. van Vliet
  2. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria

    • Michelle T. H. van Vliet,
    • David Wiberg,
    • Sylvain Leduc &
    • Keywan Riahi

Contributions

M.T.H.v.V. designed the study and performed all analyses with input from K.R. and D.W. S.L. assisted in preparing the global data set of power plants. M.T.H.v.V. drafted the manuscript. 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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