Water Availability and the Effect on the Production of Electricity


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Modern society needs always more electricity. Photo by Matti Frisk

Climate change may result in higher electricity costs, and reduced availability?

A new study, published in Nature Climate Change, shows that the production of electricity in US and Europe in future years may be affected by higher freshwater temperatures and reduced river flows.

These factors, caused by higher atmosphere temperature (climate change), may cause a reduction in the electricity production in both regions.

World Electricity Production

The global generation and consumption of electricity has been constantly increasing in latest years. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the world’s electricity generation became more than three times higher in the last 30 years, going from about 8 000 to about 18 000 billion KWh.

Electricity is produced in several ways, from different sources and/or using different fuels. Fossil-fuelled power plants using natural gas, oil-derived fuels or coal are the most common ones; nuclear plants are also widely employed, although not in every country. Natural sources, such as wind, sun and hydroelectric are becoming more common in recent years.

The regular increase in the electricity demand causes concern about its production in future years; the availability of fuels, their advantage or disadvantages, the possible risks and/or political problems associated with some fuels are issues most people are aware of.

Electricity Supply: The Role of Water

Further to fuels, another compound playing a key role in the production of electricity is water. Water is used in thermoelectric power plant (nuclear plants and fossil fuelled plants) to cool some parts of the plants themselves.

In both US and Europe, the majority of electricity is produced by this kind of power plant; more exactly, thermoelectric plants provide 91 and 78 % of the electricity of US and Europe respectively. It is evident, therefore, that a constant and reliable availability of water is crucial in both these regions.

Hot and dry summers affected river flows and water temperature. Photo by sntgmdm

Effect of the Heat

Meteorological data relative to past years showed how particularly hot, dry summers affected the production of electricity in Europe and US. Limited rainfall and high evaporation (due to the warm conditions) caused a decrease in the levels of rivers, lakes and/or other freshwater sources; hence less water was available for cooling.

Moreover, the temperature of the water itself was higher. Both the US and Europe have strict standards with regard to the volume of water withdrawn, and the temperature of the water discharged, in order to protect freshwater ecosystems. The combination of high water temperatures and low river levels led to environmental restrictions on the use of water for cooling, and a decrease in the production of electricity, which led to an increase in electricity prices.

This cycle (reduced water leading to increased electricity prices) occurred in the years 2003, 2006 and 2009 in Europe, and in 2007 and 2008 in the US.

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