Letter | Published:

Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change

Nature Climate Change volume 2, pages 676681 (2012) | Download Citation


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.

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This study was financially supported by the European Commission through the FP6 WATCH project and through the FP7 ECLISE project. We thank R. Leemans for helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript. The Global Runoff Data Centre, 56068 Koblenz, Germany, and United Nations Global Environment Monitoring System are kindly acknowledged for supplying daily observed river flow and water temperature data for river stations in the US and Europe.

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


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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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Correspondence to Michelle T. H. van Vliet.

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