Previous modelling studies suggest that thermoelectric power generation is vulnerable to climate change, whereas studies based on historical data suggest the impact will be less severe. Here we explore the vulnerability of thermoelectric power generation in the United States to climate change by coupling an Earth system model with a thermoelectric power generation model, including state-level representation of environmental regulations on thermal effluents. We find that the impact of climate change is lower than in previous modelling estimates due to an inclusion of a spatially disaggregated representation of environmental regulations and provisional variances that temporarily relieve power plants from permit requirements. More specifically, our results indicate that climate change alone may reduce average generating capacity by 2–3% by the 2060s, while reductions of up to 12% are expected if environmental requirements are enforced without waivers for thermal variation. Our work highlights the significance of accounting for legal constructs and underscores the effects of provisional variances in addition to environmental requirements.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Maupin, M. A. et al. Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2010 Circular 1405 (USGS, 2010).
Transforming the Nation’s Electricity System: The Second Installment of the Quadrennial Energy Review (DoE, 2017); https://energy.gov/epsa/quadrennial-energy-review-qer
Impact of Drought on US Steam Electric Power Plant Cooling Water Intakes and Related Water Resource Management Issues Report DOE/NETL-2009/1364 (National Energy Technology Laboratory, 2009).
Illinois EPA Grants Exelon Quad Cities Station Provisional Variance from Discharge Requirements (IEPA, 2012); http://ediillinois.org/ppa/meta/html/00/00/00/04/22/45.html
Stillwell, A. S. & Webber, M. E. Evaluation of power generation operations in response to changes in surface water reservoir storage. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 025014 (2013).
Webster, M., Donohoo, P. & Palmintier, B. Water–CO2 trade-offs in electricity generation planning. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 1029–1032 (2013).
Greis, S., Schulz, J. & Müller, U. Management of Weather and Climate Risk in the Energy Industry 267–280 (Springer, 2010).
van Vliet, M. T. H. et al. Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 676–681 (2012).
van Vliet, M. T. H., Wiberg, D., Leduc, S. & Riahi, K. Power-generation system vulnerability and adaptation to changes in climate and water resources. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 375–380 (2016).
US Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather (US Department of Energy, 2013).
Madden, N., Lewis, A. & Davis, M. Thermal effluent from the power sector: an analysis of once-through cooling system impacts on surface water temperature. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 035006 (2013).
Stewart, R. J. et al. Horizontal cooling towers: riverine ecosystem services and the fate of thermoelectric heat in the contemporary Northeast US. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 025010 (2013).
Bartos, M. D. & Chester, M. V. Impacts of climate change on electric power supply in the Western United States. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 748–752 (2015).
Impact of Future Climate Variability of ERCOT Thermoelectric Power Generation. Report ANL/EVS/R-13/2 (Argonne National Laboratory, 2013); http://www.ipd.anl.gov/anlpubs/2013/03/75723.pdf
Miara, A. & Vörösmarty, C. J. A dynamic model to assess tradeoffs in power production and riverine ecosystem protection. Environ. Sci. Process. Impacts 15, 1113–1126 (2013).
Henry, C. L. & Pratson, L. F. Effects of environmental temperature change on the efficiency of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 9764–9772 (2016).
Implementation of Clean Water Act Section 316(a) Thermal Variances in NPDES Permits (Review of Existing Requirements) (EPA, 2008).
Temperature: Water Quality Standards Criteria Summaries: a Compilation of State/Federal Criteria (EPA, 1998).
Micha, P. In hot water: clean water act provisional variances and their relationship to the impact of heat waves and droughts on the supply and demand of electricity. Chicago-Kent J. Environ. Energy Law 4, 1–34 (2014).
Thomson, A. M. et al. RCP4.5: a pathway for stabilization of radiative forcing by 2100. Climatic Change 109, 77–94 (2011).
Riahi, K. et al. RCP 8.5-A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions. Climatic Change 109, 33–57 (2011).
Liu, L. et al. Water demands for electricity generation in the US: modeling different scenarios for the water–energy nexus. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change 94, 318–334 (2015).
Webber, M. R. Thirst for Power: Energy, Water and Human Survival 248 (Yale Univ. Press, 2016).
Talati, S. et al. Consumptive water use from electricity generation in the Southwest under alternative climate, technology, and policy futures. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 12095–12104 (2016).
Hejazi, M. I. et al. 21st century United States emissions mitigation could increase water stress more than the climate change it is mitigating. Proc. Natl Acad Sci. USA 112, 10635–10640 (2015).
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is operated for DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute under contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. We would also like to acknowledge EW3 Baseline Assessment Team for making UCS EW3 Energy-Water Database V.1.3 publicly available.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Liu, L., Hejazi, M., Li, H. et al. Vulnerability of US thermoelectric power generation to climate change when incorporating state-level environmental regulations. Nat Energy 2, 17109 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nenergy.2017.109
Drought and climate change impacts on cooling water shortages and electricity prices in Great Britain
Nature Communications (2020)
Decomposing supply-side and demand-side impacts of climate change on the US electricity system through 2050
Climatic Change (2020)
Climatic Change (2020)
Nature Communications (2019)
Nature Sustainability (2019)