Impacts of climate change on electric power supply in the Western United States


Climate change may constrain future electricity generation capacity by increasing the incidence of extreme heat and drought events. We estimate reductions to generating capacity in the Western United States based on long-term changes in streamflow, air temperature, water temperature, humidity and air density. We simulate these key parameters over the next half-century by joining downscaled climate forcings with a hydrologic modelling system. For vulnerable power stations (46% of existing capacity), climate change may reduce average summertime generating capacity by 1.1–3.0%, with reductions of up to 7.2–8.8% under a ten-year drought. At present, power providers do not account for climate impacts in their development plans, meaning that they could be overestimating their ability to meet future electricity needs.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Average reductions in summertime capacity by mid-century (2040–2060) for vulnerable facilities in the WECC region.
Figure 2: Average annualized power generation capacity for representative hydrologic regions.
Figure 3: Summertime power generation capacity for representative generation technologies from 1949–2060.


  1. 1

    Van Vliet, M. T. H. et al. Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change. Nature Clim. Change 2, 676–681 (2012).

  2. 2

    Harto, C. B. & Yan, Y. E. Analysis of Drought Impacts on Electricity Production in the Western and Texas Interconnections of the United States (Environmental Science Division, Argonne National Laboratory, 2011).

  3. 3

    Kimmell, T. A. & Veil, J. A. Impact of Drought on US Steam Electric Power Plant Cooling Water Intakes and Related Water Resource Management Issues Report No. DOE/NETL-2009/1364 (National Energy Technology Laboratory, 2009).

  4. 4

    Sathaye, J. et al. Estimating Risk to California Energy Infrastructure from Projected Climate Change (California Energy Commission, 2012).

  5. 5

    Rutberg, M. J. Modeling Water Use at Thermoelectric Power Plants MS thesis, Massachusetts Inst. Technology (2003).

  6. 6

    Dubey, S., Sarvaiya, J. N. & Seshadri, B. Temperature dependent photovoltaic (PV) efficiency and its effect on PV production in the world—a review. Energy Procedia 33, 311–321 (2013).

  7. 7

    Wind Turbine Power Calculations (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2014);

  8. 8

    Rising Temperatures Undermine Nuclear Power’s Promise (Union of Concerned Scientists Backgrounder, 2007).

  9. 9

    Guide to Tools and Principles for a Dry Year Strategy (Bonneville Power Administration, 2002);

  10. 10

    Operating Experience with Nuclear Power Stations in Member States in 2003 (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2004)

  11. 11

    IPCC Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (eds Parry, M. al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).

  12. 12

    Koch, H. & Vögele, S. Dynamic modelling of water demand, water availability, and adaptation strategies for power plants to global change. Ecol. Econ. 68, 2031–2039 (2009).

  13. 13

    Form EIA-860 Detailed Data (US Energy Information Administration, 2012);

  14. 14

    Electric Power Projections by Electricity Market Module Region Tables 55.19-22 (Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Data Tables, US Energy Information Administration, 2014);

  15. 15

    NERC Reliability FAC-010-1, FAC-011-1: Determine Facility Ratings, System Operating Limit and Transfer Capabilities (Western Electricity Coordinating Council, 2006);

  16. 16

    Learn More About Interconnections (US Department of Energy, 2015);

  17. 17

    Liang, X., Lettenmaier, D. P., Wood, E. F. & Burges, S. J. A simple hydrologically based model of land-surface water and energy fluxes for general-circulation models. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 14415–14428 (1994).

  18. 18

    Lohmann, D., Raschke, E., Nijssen, B. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Regional scale hydrology: I. Formulation of the VIC-2L model coupled to a routing model. Hydrol. Sci. J. 43, 131–141 (1998).

  19. 19

    Yearsley, J. R. A semi-Lagrangian water temperature model for advection-dominated river systems. Water Resour. Res. 45, W12405 (2009).

  20. 20

    Maurer, E. P., Wood, A. W., Adam, J. C., Lettenmaier, D. P. & Nijssen, B. A long-term hydrologically-based data set of land surface fluxes and states for the conterminous United States. J. Clim. 15, 3237–3251 (2002).

  21. 21

    Downscaled CMIP3 and CMIP5 Climate and Hydrology Projections: Release of Downscaled CMIP5 Climate Projections, Comparison with preceding Information, and Summary of User Needs (US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Technical Services Center, 2013)

  22. 22

    2013 Long-Term Reliability Assessment (North American Electric Reliability Corporation, 2013);

Download references


This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers IMEE 1335556, IMEE 1335640, WSC 1360509, RIPS 1441352 and BCS 102686).

Author information

M.D.B. and M.V.C. designed the study. M.D.B. performed all analyses and collaborated with M.V.C. in interpreting the results and drafting the manuscript.

Correspondence to Matthew D. Bartos.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bartos, M., Chester, M. Impacts of climate change on electric power supply in the Western United States. Nature Clim Change 5, 748–752 (2015).

Download citation

Further reading