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Climate and water resource change impacts and adaptation potential for US power supply


Power plants that require cooling currently (2015) provide 85% of electricity generation in the United States1,2. These facilities need large volumes of water and sufficiently cool temperatures for optimal operations, and projected climate conditions may lower their potential power output and affect reliability3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. We evaluate the performance of 1,080 thermoelectric plants across the contiguous US under future climates (2035–2064) and their collective performance at 19 North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) sub-regions12. Joint consideration of engineering interactions with climate, hydrology and environmental regulations reveals the region-specific performance of energy systems and the need for regional energy security and climate–water adaptation strategies. Despite climate–water constraints on individual plants, the current power supply infrastructure shows potential for adaptation to future climates by capitalizing on the size of regional power systems, grid configuration and improvements in thermal efficiencies. Without placing climate–water impacts on individual plants in a broader power systems context, vulnerability assessments that aim to support adaptation and resilience strategies misgauge the extent to which regional energy systems are vulnerable. Climate–water impacts can lower thermoelectric reserve margins, a measure of systems-level reliability, highlighting the need to integrate climate–water constraints on thermoelectric power supply into energy planning, risk assessments, and system reliability management.

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Figure 1: Climate and water resource change impacts on available capacity.
Figure 2: Changes in river discharge and condenser inlet temperatures at power plant locations under future climate, and regional contrasts in technology performances.
Figure 3: Climate and water resource change impacts on the probability of power plants meeting their current (2015) peak power output requirement.
Figure 4: Climate and water resource change impacts on regional reserve margins, a measure of systems-level reliability.

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This work was carried out under the National Science Foundation’s Water Sustainability and Climate grant #1360445. We thank A. Agrawal, F. Corsi, N. Devineni and B. Roberts for their contributions.

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All authors contributed to discussions, and the first five to the writing, of the paper. A.M., J.E.M., C.J.V., B.F. contributed to conceiving and designing the experiments. A.M. performed the experiments and data analysis.

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Correspondence to Ariel Miara.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Miara, A., Macknick, J., Vörösmarty, C. et al. Climate and water resource change impacts and adaptation potential for US power supply. Nature Clim Change 7, 793–798 (2017).

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