December 14, 2011

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

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
. 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 Guardian
reported, 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

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