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The power grid is susceptible to climate change, but it can be made more adaptable

Nov 2, 2017

The reliability of our power supply is vulnerable to climate change. But the grid can be made more adaptable.

Those are the conclusions of a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Ariel Miara is the study's lead author, a PhD candidate at the City College of New York, and a research associate at the Advanced Science Research Center at the City University of New York.

He says there are three major ways our power supply is vulnerable to climate change.

“The first is that warmer temperatures under future climate will mean that we increase our electricity demand, because we’ll need to stay cool and turn on our air conditioning. The second way is that warmer air temperatures will make the transmission of electricity from our power supply sources, like power plants for example, to our homes and businesses less efficient. And what that means is that we’ll lose some power along the way,” he says.

The third way the power grid can be vulnerable, and the focus of the study, is due to the power plants themselves.

“And what we saw is that under future climate conditions, warmer air temperatures and water temperatures, meaning warmer river temperatures and lake temperatures, combined with lower river flow during the summer, will lower the potential power output from our power plants,” says Miara. “And that will affect the reliability of our power supply.”

That's because most power plants need a lot of water to operate. And it’s not just that, adds Miara.

“They need enough water to maintain operations, but they also need the water to be at cool enough temperatures.”

He says warmer air and water temperatures, as well as higher humidity levels, can lower the efficiency of power plants. Miara says the older the power plant, the more susceptible it is to the effects of climate change.

“Power plants that require cooling are called thermoelectric power plants,” explains Miara. “And these power plants use coal, nuclear, natural gas, and bio power. Your more traditional steam cycle plants are coal and nuclear, for example. And these power plants are less efficient compared to newer, natural gas combined cycle plants."

He says those newer combined cycle plants rely less on water, making them more adaptable to warmer and drier climates.

But Miara says we're already making changes to make the grid more adaptable.

“Today’s grid actually already has some built-in resilience. And that’s because of its size and connectivity,” he says.

He says the power grid is overbuilt, meaning there are lots of plants that can be turned on to meet higher demand.

The grid is also highly connected, which allows electricity to be transported from less vulnerable regions to more vulnerable regions.

“But we need to make sure that we continue investment in maintaining our infrastructure and its connectivity, and efficiently integrating new infrastructure like renewables into the grid,” he says.

This research was a collaborative effort with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Sandia National Laboratory. You can learn more about energy and water research from the NREL here.