Global Warming May Reduce U.S. Nuclear And Coal Power Output Up To 16 Percent By 2060

Global warming will force a reduction in nuclear and coal electricity generation over the coming decades as a decline in freshwater resources makes it more difficult to cool thermoelectric power plants, say researchers.

A new study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change projects that thermoelectric generation could fall by 4.4 to 16 percent in the U.S. between 2031 and 2060 due to a lack of adequate cooling water. Thermoelectric plants make up roughly 90 percent of the U.S. electricity mix — sucking up 40 percent of the nation’s freshwater supplies.

The researchers also projected a steeper decline in Europe, which could see a 19 percent dip in generation.

For cooling-water use, the combination of decreases in low river flows and increases in (especially high) water temperature is problematic. We used daily water temperature projections to calculate the mean number of days per year that water temperature is predicted to exceed the inlet limits of river water for cooling water use of 23 °C (Europe) and 27 °C (US). The increase in the number of days per year with water temperature exceeding 23 °C is generally highest for southern Europe (median of 44–48 (59–82) days per year for B1–A2 scenario for the 2040s (2080s) relative to 23 days for 1971–2000). The same magnitude of increase in number of days with water temperatures exceeding 27 °C is found for the south and southeastern US. Combined with projected decreases in low river flows of more than 25% in these regions, cooling-water problems are expected to be exacerbated substantially in the future.

The researchers also found that the likelihood of “extreme reductions” in electricity production of 90% or more at plants could increase by three-fold.

This emerging conflict is just one more headache for the ailing nuclear and coal industries in the U.S.

It’s been 16 years since a nuclear power plant was built in America. Southern Company is currently constructing a new plant in Georgia; however, the company recently reported that the project — once hailed as the start of a “renaissance” in nuclear — will cost almost $1 billion more than expected.

The coal industry has seen a steep decline in production, falling from 44.6 percent of U.S. electricity generation to 36 percent in just one year. A combination of aging infrastructure, cost-competitive renewables, new clean air regulations, and a strong anti-coal movement are quickly reducing the attractiveness of coal.

A warming planet will only accelerate the problems faced in these industries. The decline in adequate cooling water resources will force longer shutdowns, thus increasing the cost of electricity and raising more local environmental conflicts.

13 Responses to Global Warming May Reduce U.S. Nuclear And Coal Power Output Up To 16 Percent By 2060

  1. catman306 says:

    Won’t this increase the effectiveness of energy conservation as a substitute for generated power?

  2. Joan Savage says:

    Glad to see this topic get a fresh review. The US Geological Survey published a fact sheet on consumptive water use in the Great Lakes Basin that revealed the astonishing consumption of water for thermoelectric use as of 2000 (see Figure 4).

    Consumptive Water Use in the Great Lakes Basin – USGS

  3. M Tucker says:

    Yep, water cooling is a problem. Even water used to cool some solar thermal projects is a problem, as some desert Southwest projects are designed to do. We have the technology to move away for both fossil fuel use and water cooling used in electrical generation.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    The next generation in my family keeps wanting R&D on liquid fluoride thorium reactors that were initially developed back in the 1950s. They don’t use cooling water for the reactor, can use spent fuel rods from 1st generation reactors, and don’t make weapon materials. Sounds pretty good! However, as near as I can tell, with thorium reactors there is still a heat-to-electric component that would involve steam turbines and thus some consumptive water use.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Next generation conversion of heat to electricity?

  6. ToddInNorway says:

    Even more reason to expand water-free power from PV and wind. Honestly this is a total no-brainer, and all subsidies for PV and wind at good sunny and windy sites is money well spent.

  7. catman306 says:

    Direct conversion of heat to electricity is an area where the researches need to get cracking. There’s gold in that steam and hot water.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Please make a correction regarding, “sucking up 40 percent of the nation’s freshwater supplies.”

    The Nature article says, ” When compared with other sectors, thermoelectric power is one of the largest water users in both the US (ref. 6; 40%) and Europe7 (43% of total surface water withdrawals).”

    The figure of 40% refers only to surface water withdrawal, which is huge indeed, but is not 40% of [all] fresh water.

  9. John Tucker says:

    Also Gas Fracking is arguably one of the greatest threats to water supplies out there.

  10. Chris Winter says:

    In this regard, Richard Martin’s book SuperFuel, published in May, provides a very readable and mostly accurate overview — with a few flaws. He tends to minimize the fact that LFTRs produce highly radioactive wastes just like conventional reactors. Also, he’s too pessimistic about renewables.

    I have a review here:

  11. SecularAnimist says:

    “thermoelectric generation could fall by 4.4 to 16 percent in the U.S. between 2031 and 2060 due to a lack of adequate cooling water”

    If we would just get cracking on deployment at all scales of today’s mature and powerful solar and wind energy technologies while fully funding development of the even more powerful solar and wind technologies that are nearly ready for commercialization, then thermoelectric generation from nuclear and fossil fuels can fall by 100 percent by 2031, and that will be a very good thing.

  12. Solar Jim says:

    Actually, the trend seems likely to lead to a 61% reduction in power use by 2100 because the starving masses won’t need it. You can’t eat power, although masters of the universe love bathing in it. Stock in firewater (and whiskey) might be a Wall Street hit. I hear they’ve got something along this line via fracking. Turn on your tap and heat your home. Although the water might not be so hot.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What has happened to energy efficiency, and passive methods for cooling or heating? All I’ve seen lately are Rightwing propaganda droogs blandly asserting that efficiency gains are impossible, as if the resurrected ‘Jevons ‘Law’ or Paradox’ (Chico Marx where are you?)was some sort of ‘iron law’. And why don’t we paint every roof white-what are the drawbacks to that?