Global electricity production vulnerable to climate and water resource change

Changes in water resources could lead to reductions in electricity production capacity for more than 60 percent of the power plants worldwide ©Gretar Ívarsson

Climate change impacts on rivers and streams may substantially reduce electricity production capacity around the world, according to a new study led by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
The study asserts that climate change impacts and associated changes in water resources could lead to reductions in the electricity production capacity of more than 60 percent for power plants worldwide from 2040-2069. Yet adaptation measures focused on making power plants more efficient and flexible could mitigate much of the decline.
“Hydropower plants and thermoelectric power plants—which are nuclear, fossil and biomass-fueled plants converting heat to electricity— both rely on freshwater from rivers and streams,” explained Michelle Van Vliet, a researcher at IIASA and Wageningen University. “These power- generating technologies strongly depend on water availability, and water for cooling plays a critical role for thermoelectric power generation.”
Together, hydropower and thermoelectric power currently contribute to 98 percent of electricity production worldwide. Model projections show that climate change will impact water resources availability and will increase water temperatures in many regions of the world.
A previous study by the researchers showed that reduced summer water availability and higher water temperatures associated with climate change could result in significant reductions in thermoelectric power supply in Europe and the US. This new study expands the research to a global level, using data from 24,515 hydropower and 1,427 thermoelectric power plants worldwide.
“This is the first study of its kind to examine the links between climate change, water resources and electricity production on a global scale,” said Keywan Riahi, IIASA energy programme director and a co-author of the study. “We clearly show that power plants are not only causing climate change, but they might also be affected in major ways by climate.”