Research Press Release

Potential threat to electricity supply in Western United States

Nature Climate Change

May 19, 2015

Climate change may significantly constrain future electricity supply in the Western United States, a new paper published in Nature Climate Change suggests. It estimates that nearly half (46%) of the region’s average summertime generation capacity could be reduced by as much as 3% by the mid-twenty-first century due to changes in water flow, air temperature, and humidity.

Electricity generation can be disrupted by adverse climatic conditions, such as extreme heat and drought. Thermoelectric plants, such as those powered by coal, are most vulnerable to climatic changes. Currently, power providers do not account for climate impacts in their development plans.

Matthew Bartos and Mikhail Chester assessed future electricity reliability under three carbon emission scenarios in 14 states governed by the Western Electricity Coordination Council, including California. They found climate change could reduce average summertime generating capacity by 1.1-3% for vulnerable power stations, which account for 46% of the region’s existing capacity. These reductions could reach 7.2?8.8% if there was a 10-year drought. For the California and Colorado river basins, climate change could reduce annual summertime capacity by 2? 5.2% in an average year. Projections suggest that power providers could be overestimating their reserve capacity by as much as 20-25% in the case of a 10-year drought.

The results show that an over-reliance on traditional thermoelectric generation could mean constrained electricity capacity in the future. The research suggests greater efforts must be made to ‘climate-proof’ the power grid by encouraging conservation strategies, investing in renewable energy, and accounting for climatic constraints when planning new facilities.


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