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Nearly Half of Western U.S. Power Plants Vulnerable to Climate Change

Katherine Tweed's picture
, Greentech Media
  • Member since 2018
  • 180 items added with 107,225 views
  • Jun 1, 2015

southwest power plants

The desert Southwest will be the hardest hit.

The effects of climate change could hamper electric generating capacity in the Western U.S. during peak summertime energy use by about 3 percent on average, and up to nearly 9 percent if there is ongoing drought.

A new study from Arizona State University looked at the effects of climate change on streamflow, air and water temperature, humidity and air density. The result is that by mid-century, nearly half of existing capacity operating in the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which spans 14 states, could be adversely affected to some degree.

Some of the largest capacity reductions would be in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, although California would likely see the most widespread effects. It is the desert Southwest that would be hit the hardest, however, according to lead author Matt Bartos, research scientist at ASU’s Fulton School of Engineering. The study appeared in the May issue of Nature Climate Change.

“In their development plans, power providers are not taking into account climate-change impacts,” Bartos said in a statement. “They are likely overestimating their ability to meet future electricity needs.” An electric utility survey by Black & Veatch found that reliability, regulation and cybersecurity ranked as top concerns; climate change does not make the list as a standalone concern. 

Combustion turbines will see the most consistent capacity reductions, the study found, although steam turbines will be the most affected by drought. Many renewables, including wind and solar PV, will fare much better, but they are not immune. The study found utility-scale solar PV could also see summertime capacity reductions of about 1 percent due to higher air temperatures.

Hydropower is one of the sources that will be directly affected, although the outcomes vary across the region. The Northwest is expected to receive more rain under climate-change forecasts, while California will continue to see less. Hydropower losses in California have already cost California ratepayers about $1.4 billion in the past three years.

With some planning, however, the expected losses due to changing climate conditions could be made up by wind, solar PV and demand-side management. Utility-scale solar generation, along with more natural gas, made up the deficit of hydropower in California in 2014.

Other forces, such as older coal-fired power plants being retired due to increasing regulation, could also take many of the most affected generation sources offline by mid-century. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan would also increase the trend to retire the least efficient, and usually most water-hungry, power plants.

Finally, energy efficiency and demand response, often the cheapest ways to meet demand during peak summer days, could assume a far larger role in the future, especially in California, where the rules for demand response are being rewritten to allow for broader participation.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 1, 2015

Katherine, I’d like to think the omission of any mention of Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the nation’s largest point source of clean, carbon-free energy, was accidental – from both your coverage and the study you cite. Especially in light of the fact that this plant, which generates 3.5 billion watts of electricity, day or night, in the heart of the Desert Southwest you claim will be “hardest hit” by climate change, unlike renewables and the natural gas generation they depend upon to remain viable – is entirely unaffected by it.

But of course, I know better. This is another example of the irresponsible antinuclear propagandizing we can expect from GreenTech Media, and ignores the virtually unlimited potential of nuclear energy to address climate change safely, cleanly, and reliably. For those readers interested in truly viable mitigation strategies for climate change, I include this excerpt from IAEA’s “Efficient Water Management in Water-Cooled Reactors“:

Depending on the design of the cooling system as well as the water management scheme, water consumption can be significantly reduced, with environmental as well as operational benefits. This is clearly seen in the comparative example of the Diablo Canyon and Palo Verde NPPs [nuclear power plants]. Sited on the ocean coast, Diablo Canyon does not compete with other fresh water users, since it desalinates seawater to meet its freshwater needs; the cooling water is strictly seawater. As Palo Verde is situated in the desert, it uses reclaimed water from the Phoenix area municipal sewage treatment facilities, as well as closed loop cooling, avoiding large withdrawal rates of the magnitude used at Diablo Canyon.

Katherine Tweed's picture
Thank Katherine for the Post!
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