As of now, 91 percent of Europe’s electricity is produced from those three sources, and nuclear and fossil fuel plants are the continents single biggest consumer of water — accounting for 43 percent of all surface water withdrawal. Given that reliance, it’s an open question how well the power industry can continue to function in climate changes’ new realities.
The researchers focused on 29 European countries, developing a model of river flow and water temperatures using observed data from 1971 to 2000. They then plugged in the projected climate changes produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That gave them projections for European river flows and water temperatures for 2031 to 2060. Using other projections of future capacity, cost, and demand from the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, they then looked at how those changes would affect energy production from hydropower plants, nuclear plants, and fossil fuel plants.
The conclusion is that over half of the countries studied will see some amount of price increase, with the big hits in the summer, and mainly for central and southern Europe. Slovenia saw an 12 to 15 percent increase in the model; Bulgaria a 21 to 23 percent increase; and Romania a 31 to 32 percent increase. Countries like Ireland, Denmark, and the U.K. will escaped unscathed, and Norway and Sweden actually saw a price drop. But for the most part, a hike in costs would be the order of the day:
To explain, climate change threatens to reduce river flows, aquifers, and other sources of fresh water thanks to melting glaciers and less reliable rainfall. As a result, the study found a decrease in river flow of 13 to 15 percent for Southern Europe in the 2031-2060 time period (relative to 1971-2000) while places like Spain, Italy and Greece dropped as much as 20 percent. That was offset by an increase of 3 to 5 percent in river flow for Northern Europe. Water temperature increases, again thanks to global warming, were much more evenly distributed, usually around 0.6 to 0.8 degrees Celsius — though some central European areas got over one degree Celsius.
Breaking down the effects on power generation, northern countries — Norway, Sweden, etc. — saw an overall increase of 8 percent for hydropower capacities, while southern countries — Greece, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Serbia, etc. — saw an overall decrease of 15 percent. For the continent as a whole, it’s a decrease of 4 to 5 percent. For nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, around half of Europe looks like it’ll escape essentially unscathed, especially the north. But reductions ranged from 5 percent all the way to 21 percent in other areas, with the the biggest reductions in some southern European countries. The hits were, again, substantially worse in the summer. But the study also determined that adapting with better cooling technology and more advanced fuels could take a lot of the edge off.
Widening the view to the global level, a study released in January by The International Energy Agency concluded that annual water consumption for energy production will likely double by 2035 — from 66 billion cubic meters now to 135 billion. And along with climate change, population growth will also be straining water supplies: the United Nations projects that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with severe water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions. So there will be less available fresh water for human consumption, plus strained and costlier energy supplies. Europe is just one corner of the global challenge.