Could Climate Change Affect Efforts to Become More Energy Secure?

The question of whether climate change could affect a country’s efforts to become more energy secure is thought provoking, and, as I suspect, less abstract than not. Many of the renewable energy technologies that countries are investing in interact, in some way, with the natural environment. Hydroelectric power, for example, requires a strong, steady stream of water to rotate turbines to produce electricity. Many nuclear power stations are generally co-located near water sources because of the amount of water that must be used in their cooling systems. One wonders then how climate-induced drought may affect these renewable energy technologies.

In China, for example, drought is already affecting the countries hydroelectric energy production. In October The Wall Street Journal reported that China is facing a 30 to 40 percent decline in hydroelectric output this winter due to perennial drought. It is unclear exactly how climate change could affect drought in China, but if climate change exacerbates existing trends – as many scientists expect it may – then drought could become more problematic in the future. To compensate for declines in hydroelectric output, China may be compelled to make up the energy shortfall with greater use of coal and other carbon-intensive energy sources, which could contribute to a dangerous and negative climate feedback loop.

This challenge is not unique to China, either. In the American Southwest, drought could affect hydroelectric energy production, including from historical landmarks like the Hoover Dam. Experts cautioned last September that “the mighty turbines of the Hoover Dam could cease turning as soon as 2013, if water levels in the lake that feeds the dam don't start to recover,” contributing to energy supply shortfalls in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Meanwhile, water shortages may contribute to problems with nuclear energy, even as the International Energy Agency reports that nuclear power will play a key role in global energy production. The Guardian reported yesterday that drought in Romania is impacting nuclear power production along the Danube river. According to the report:

Early this month, the Danube's flow rate in Turnu-Severin, a town in southwest Romania, home to the country's largest hydroelectric power plant, was 2,400 cubic metres per second, 63% of the usual average of 3,800 cubic metres per second. Hidroelectrica, the public corporation in charge of delivering the energy produced by the [nuclear] plant, is generating only 1,800MW instead of the usual 2,100 MW.

This is not the first time that Romanian nuclear power stations have been affected by drought. “In 2003 the drought in Romania was so severe that it led to the shutdown of one of the Cernavoda reactors,” The Guardianreported, adding that if the current drought persists the government may have to close a reactor. Like with the China example used above, it is unclear how climate change could affect drought trends in Romania, but policymakers there would be wise to study the potential effects and plan for a worsening in drought conditions in order to safeguard their energy interests.

Could climate change affect a country’s efforts to become more energy secure? I suspect so. But there is limited evidence to support what is otherwise just an interesting and potentially worrying hypothesis. More research should be done specifically on this issue, and should include an assessment of other renewable technologies, like wind and marine energy. Building an empirical data set will take time, so countries should parallel those research efforts by ensuring that the environmental impact studies they conduct on sites where they plan to build renewable energy projects also includes a climate impact analysis.  Knowing how climate change could affect those renewable energy projects will be important for countries to safeguard their energy interests by ensuring that they are investing in their energy security in the right places and with the appropriate technologies. 

Photo: The Hoover Dam. Courtesy of Flickr user robbyb.