With impeccably awful timing, two professors who self-identify as “climate scientist” write in CarbonBrief on Feb. 15 about “How global warming is making power plants produce less electricity”. It turns out the problem is that when it gets hot and dry there’s not enough water for their cooling systems so “the plants must be curbed, meaning electricity output is cut. This often comes just as electricity demand peaks due to people’s increasing reliance on air conditioning to keep cool.” If only they’d known sooner in Texas.
It might strike some dolts that a solution would be to devise less primitive cooling systems. Ones with a closed cooling cycle like, say, your fridge. Ah but nay. “In a new paper, published in Environmental Research Letters, we find that in a warming world, hundreds of additional power plants would need to be constructed in the coming decades simply to make up for this lost power. However, this is not the only option. If nations instead focus on technologies such as solar and wind, which produce fewer emissions and are less impacted by hot weather, the electricity sector will be both less of a contributor to – and victim of – climate change.” As in Texas. No wait.
Just how bad is the problem? Well, in China they’re building those hundreds of additional plants, burning coal no less. But the authors probably did not have that solution in mind. Rather, they say that “On the hottest days, some power plants may have their output curbed or even need to shut down entirely because they cannot keep themselves cool. This happened to nuclear plants in France and Germany during the 2019 heatwaves.” So there’s one example. As for the rest, “Estimating the real-world response of power plants to extreme weather is difficult due to a lack of daily-scale power plant outage data.” And when you don’t have data, well, interpolate with a computer model.
In any case, they find that “when temperatures exceeded 40C, [thermal] power plants tend to operate at 90-93% of their full capacity.” Which they concede “may not sound like a large loss, but heatwaves often cover a wide area, meaning dozens of power plants could simultaneously experience curtailment.” As opposed to when temperatures plunged in Texas and too many went offline entirely.
Never mind. “Temperatures are rising and heatwaves are becoming more frequent. In some regions, these conditions are already approaching the limits of human tolerance.” But computer models to the rescue: “To assess future electricity restrictions, we merged our projections of power plant capacity with scenarios that describe possible trajectories of decreasing, or increasing, global thermal power generation.” And you’ll never guess. Wind and solar win.
Finally, “Advances in renewable technologies mean that alternatives are available that use less water and are less impacted by hot weather. Moreover, the faster the transition to zero-carbon power, the less temperatures will rise and the faster the vicious cycle will be broken.” Whereas of course advances in traditional technologies can’t possibly make them be less impacted by hot weather. When has humanity ever found a way to counteract undesirable effects of warmth? OK, apart from air conditioning and refrigerators.