In recent years, concerns have grown over the risks posed by climate change on the U.S. electricity grid. The availability of water resources is integral to the production of electric power, and droughts are expected to become more frequent, severe, and longer-lasting over the course of the twenty-first century. The American Southwest, in particular, is expected to experience large deficits in streamflow. Studies on the Colorado River anticipate streamflow declines of 20-45% by 2050. Other climactic shifts—such as higher water and air temperatures—may also adversely affect power generation. As extreme weather becomes more common, better methods are needed to assess the impact of climate change on power generation. This study uses a physically-based modeling system to assess the vulnerability of power infrastructure in the Southwestern United States at a policy-relevant scale.
Thermoelectric power—which satisfies a majority of U.S. electricity demand—is vulnerable to drought. Thermoelectric power represents the backbone of the U.S. power sector, accounting for roughly 91% of generation. Thermoelectric power also accounts for roughly 39% of all water withdrawals in the U.S.—roughly equivalent to the amount of water used for agriculture. Water use in power plants is primarily dictated by the needs of the cooling system. During the power generation process, thermoelectric power plants build up waste heat, which must be discharged in order for the generation process to continue. Traditionally, water is used for this purpose, because it is safe, plentiful, and can absorb a large amount of heat. However, when water availability is constrained, power generation may also be adversely affected. Thermoelectric power plants are particularly susceptible to changes in streamflow and water temperature. These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by environmental regulations, which govern both the amount of water withdrawn, and the temperatures of the water discharged. In 2003, extreme drought and heat impaired the generating capacity of more than 30 European nuclear power plants, which were unable to comply with environmental regulations governing discharge temperatures. Similarly, many large base-load thermoelectric facilities in the Southeastern United States were threatened by a prolonged drought in 2007 and 2008. During this period, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) reduced generation at several facilities, and one major facility was shut down entirely. To meet demand, the TVA was forced to purchase electricity from the grid, causing electricity prices to rise.
Although thermoelectric power plants currently produce most of the electric power consumed in the United States, other sources of power are also vulnerable to changes in climate. Renewables are largely dependent on natural resources like rain, wind, and sunlight. As the quantity and distribution of these resources begins to change, renewable generation is also likely to be affected. Hydroelectric dams represent the largest source of renewable energy currently in use throughout the United States. Under drought conditions, when streamflow attenuates and reservoir levels drop, hydroelectric plants are unable to operate at normal capacity. In 2001, severe drought in California and the Pacific Northwest restricted hydroelectric power generation, causing a steep increase in electricity prices. Although blackouts and brownouts were largely avoided, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimated a regional economic impact of roughly $2.5 to $6 billion. In addition to hydroelectric power, it has also been theorized that solar energy resources may also be susceptible to predicted increases in surface temperature and atmospheric albedo. One study predicts that solar facilities in the Southwestern U.S. may suffer losses of 2-5%.
The aim of this study is to estimate the extent to which climate change may impact power generation in the Southwestern United States. This analysis will focus on the Western Interconnection, which comprises the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico and Texas. First, climactic and hydrologic parameters relevant to power generation are identified for five types of generation technologies. A series of functional relationships are developed such that impacts to power generation can be estimated directly from changes in certain meteorological and hydrological parameters. Next, climate forcings from the CMIP3 multi-model ensemble are used as inputs to a physically-based modeling system (consisting of a hydrological model, an offline routing model, and a one-dimensional stream temperature model). The modeling system is used to estimate changes in climactic and hydrologic parameters relevant to electricity generation for various generation technologies. Climactic and hydrologic parameters are then combined with the functional relationships developed in the first step to estimate impacts to power generation over the twenty-first century.