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More power generation needed to keep the lights on amidst climate change

A new analysis from university-based and national laboratory researchers applied a new modeling approach for long-term electricity generation infrastructure planning that considers future climate and water resource conditions.

Compared to traditional projections, which do not consider climate-water impacts on electricity generation, results of this new approach show the national power grid may need an additional 5.3 per cent to 12 per cent of power-generating capacity to meet demand and reliability requirements.

The changes would lower water use and carbon emissions, potentially helping mitigate future climate changes.

The new study, which will be featured as the cover article in the December 3 online and December 13 print issue of Environmental Science & Technology, is available online today.

“This is the first time anyone has modeled future electricity infrastructure under climate change using a method that includes feasibility checks to ensure results meet reliable power supply thresholds under climate and water resource constraints,” said the study’s lead author Ariel Miara, a senior research associate with the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY (CUNY ASRC) and an energy, water, and environment researcher with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

“We combined high-resolution hydrological, thermal-power plant, and capacity-expansion models to improve confidence in long-term electricity infrastructure planning under future climate-water impacts. Typically, this isn’t done for electricity infrastructure planning, or it’s done but without feasibility checks on results. Our approach allowed us to assess region-specific climate-water impacts on power supply reliability and identify potential adaptation steps to enhance reliability.”

The current U.S. grid relies heavily on thermal power plants that use coal, nuclear, and natural gas fuels; these are affected by warm ambient temperatures and need large amounts of water for cooling purposes. Renewable energy sources such as solar PV and wind require minimal amounts of water for operation as they do not require cooling, but these technologies play a much smaller role in generating energy across today’s power grid. Regional differences in power grid configuration and development to year 2050, together with changes in climate and water availability, suggest that some regions may face power-reliability challenges.

“We showed that power systems may face reliability challenges without climate-water adaptation,” said Miara. “Viable solutions included tradeoffs in regional technology choice and typically more renewable-based versus thermal power generation. This results in lower overall water use and emissions for our electricity generation needs.”

This research was a collaborative effort with NREL and Sandia National Laboratories. The study was funded under National Science Foundation’s Water Sustainability and Climate Program (Principal Investigator: Charles Vörösmarty).

Click here to read the research paper, including simulated scenario analysis, projections, approaches and results.