August 15, 2012

Warming Trend Takes Toll on Energy Production

Higher average temperatures in the United States continue to take a toll on U.S. energy infrastructure, raising concerns about the impact of long-term climate trends and U.S. energy security.

In June, the journal Nature Climate Change published a study that found that energy production from thermoelectric power plants (such as nuclear power stations) could become increasingly constrained as a result of climate change, largely from higher average temperatures warming rivers and other water resources that these facilities rely on for cooling. “During recent warm, dry summers in 2003, 2006 and 2009 several thermoelectric power plants in Europe were forced to reduce production, because of restricted availability of cooling water,” the study found. “In the US a similar event in 2007–2008 caused several power plants to reduce production, or shut down for several days owing to a lack of surface water for cooling and environmental restrictions on thermal discharges.”

That trend is continuing, according to a recent report in The New York Times. On Monday, the Times reported that a nuclear reactor at the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Connecticut was shut down because that water in Long Island Sound was too warm to cool one of the reactors. “Under the reactor’s safety rules, the cooling water can be no higher than 75 degrees. On Sunday afternoon, the water’s temperature soared to 76.7 degrees, prompting the operator, Dominion Power, to order the shutdown of the 880-megawatt reactor,”  according to the report.

This is not a new phenomenon. In February, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a report on the impact of climate change on U.S. nuclear power production. “The one-two punch of power production and climate change has already made some rivers so hot during the summer that they can no longer provide adequate cooling at power plants without exceeding legal limits on temperature,” the report stated. “During the past two summers, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to reduce power production by 50 percent at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant because the water in the Tennessee River -- where the plant's cooling water is discharged -- was already at 90 degrees.”

But what is particularly troubling about the the Millstone nuclear plant is its location: along the coast. Previous nuclear reactor shutdowns have occurred at inland power stations, where smaller water sources like lakes and rivers are used as cooling water and may be more easily affected by heat waves and other warming trends. As the Times reported, “it is unusual for coastal plants [to be shutdown due to warm cooling water], nuclear industry officials say.”  

Although it is difficult to judge on balance whether or not these warming trends will continue, there is evidence to suggest that drought and higher average temperatures could become more frequent as a result of global climate change, raising concerns about the long-term viability of thermoelectric power plants, at least under their current designs. Policymakers will need to give serious attention to adapting current power stations to these environmental trends. And more important, future plants should be designed to weather the impacts of climate change, including running at higher temperatures. 

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