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Implications of water constraints on electricity capacity expansion in the United States


The development of new electricity generation capacity is constrained by water resource availability. However, the sufficiency of available water resources is rarely incorporated into the planning of electricity capacity expansion in the United States. Previous studies on the implications of water constraints on US electricity generation are limited in terms of scale and robustness. Here, we extend previous studies by including physical water constraints within a state-level model of the US energy system embedded within a global integrated assessment model (GCAM-USA) that integrates both supply and demand effects under a consistent framework. We show that water constraints have two general effects across the United States: (1) to increase the cost of electricity generation, which results in slightly reduced electrification of end-use sectors, and (2) to incentivize early retirement of water-intensive technologies before the end of their designed lifetimes, while simultaneously boosting investment in less water-dependent technologies. Our results suggest that water availability constraints may cause substantial capital stock turnover and result in non-negligible economic costs for the western United States, whereas fewer impacts may be anticipated in the eastern United States. Our work emphasizes the need to integrate water availability constraints into electricity capacity planning and highlights the state-level challenges to facilitate regional strategic resource planning.

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This research was supported by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy through the Integrated Assessment Research Program. PNNL is operated for DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute under contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. We would also like to acknowledge V. Tidwell for providing water availability data for the United States.

Author information

L.L, M.H. and G.I. designed the study. L.L performed all analyses and worked with G.I. in configuring the model. B.F., M.H. and G.I. worked on revising the manuscript. All authors contributed to the discussion of the results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Lu Liu.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–9, Supplementary Tables 1–2, Supplementary Notes 1–4, Supplementary References 1–11

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Fig. 1: US electricity generation and capacity additions time series.
Fig. 2: Water constraint impacts on capacity additions and forced retirements.
Fig. 3: Water constraint impacts on electricity generation.
Fig. 4: Relative fractions of cumulative capacity additions (2011–2050) by fuel for each electricity grid region.
Fig. 5: Cumulative forced retirements of electricity capacity from 2011 to 2050, and the economic costs of achieving the severe water constraint.
Fig. 6: Change in US electricity trade fraction by 2050 under the severe water constraint scenario compared with no water-binding constraints.