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Vulnerability of US thermoelectric power generation to climate change when incorporating state-level environmental regulations


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.

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Figure 1: EPA state water temperature standards criteria.
Figure 2: Projected average monthly usable capacity under the RCP4.5 scenario.
Figure 3: Average usable capacity reductions under RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios.


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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.

Author information




L.L. and M.H. designed the study, L.L. performed all analyses and collaborated with H.L. and X.Z. in generating model input data. B.F. and M.H. worked on drafting and re-writing the manuscript. All authors contributed to the discussion of the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lu Liu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–7, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Notes 1–3 and Supplementary References (PDF 1183 kb)

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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).

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