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Get Used To Blackouts and Higher Electric Bills As the Climate Changes

International attention has largely focused on how climate change is caused by power plant emissions but new research quantifies the likely impacts droughts and heat waves will have on power plant capacity around the world.
Foto di Patrick Pleul/EPA

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Climate change could put at risk thousands of the world's power plants by the middle of the century, leading to outages and forcing countries to find alternative sources of energy, according to a study published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Researchers evaluated the likely impact of more frequent and more severe heat waves on 24,515 hydropower and 1,427 thermoelectric power plants around the world. They found that as many as 86 percent of those hydro facilities could see notable cuts in output around mid-century and as many as 74 percent of thermoelectric plants.


"I would say that what we found is of significant concern," said Keywan Riahi, a co-author on the paper and the director of energy at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a nongovernmental research organization in Austria.

"So far, everybody has looked at power plants as the major source of climate change," he said. "But increasingly with climate change, the power plants themselves become effected."

Riahi and his team found that around mid-century hydropower plants could see their capacity cut by as much as 17 percent annually and as much as 30 percent in months when water shortages might be at their worst. Australia would be the hardest hit followed by South America and Europe.

Thermoelectric plants would see a drop in capacity of as much as 12 percent by the middle of the century, though more than two-thirds could see their capacity drop by over a third — partly due to water shortages but also warming waters which makes it more difficult and expensive to keep power plants cool.

Africa would be the hardest hit followed by Europe, North America, and Australia.

"We are talking two-thirds of the capacity worldwide being effected by 30 percent in certain months. That is not good news for utilities," Riahi said.

The result is likely to translate into higher utility bills for customers and more frequent black outs.

Related: The World Is Running Out of Water

The findings are the latest to draw attention to the impacts of climate change on power plants and the fact that most governments and utilities have done little to prepare these facilities for a warmer world.


A similar study in Nature Climate Change last year found that drought and extreme heat in the Western United States could reduce average power generation by up to 8.8 percent by mid-century under a ten-year drought scenario. A 2012 Nature Climate Change study projected that power plant capacity during the summer months could drop by as much as 19 percent in Europe and 16 percent in the United States between 2031 and 2060.

Already facing water shortages and blackouts due to droughts and heat waves, many developing countries are starting to reconsider where they get their power. Tanzania, for example, is reconsidering how it powers its growing economies due to a drought that has dried up the rivers it depends on for hydropower.

The country is making plans to shift from hydropower, which provides 35 percent of its energy needs, to more traditional power sources like fossil fuels to make up for the shortfall, Reuters said.

But the latest study offers ways to avert a power crisis in the decades to come.

Many of these reductions could be avoided if authorities embarked on schemes to climate-proof their facilities. Plants could be made more efficient while authorities could replace freshwater with seawater to cool systems and embrace less water-intensive fuel sources such as natural gas.

"[T]here is a risk. But this risk can be mitigated through technological progress," Riahi said, adding that increased use of renewables like solar and wind can also help.


Related: In Drought-Battered Somaliland, Climate Change Is Deadly Serious

The study found that increasing the efficiency of hydropower plants — especially the turbines — by only 10 percent could completely offset the potential losses from climate change. The benefits of increased efficiency were not as significant for thermoelectric power plants, where a 20 percent increase in efficiency "was still insufficient to mitigate overall reductions in cooling water use potential under changing climate."

Shifting to higher efficiency gas-fired plants would provide additional relief for the most vulnerable power plants, the authors found, as well as substituting air or seawater for the use of freshwater to cool facilities.

"Most of the investments will be made in the developing world," Riahi said. "Those investments need to be made in a way that adaptions is factored in from the beginning."

Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @Mcasey1

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