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Will climate change impact power plant output?

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Duke University released a study earlier this week on the adverse effects of climate change on coal or gas fired power plant output, and have produced results that have truly gone against the grain.

Based on real world data (the first of its kind!), they have found that the cooling efficiency and energy output of every power plant across the US are much more resilient than previously thought. What’s more is that these results are regardless of location, generating capacity or fuel type.

They also found that plants with closed-loop cooling systems were a cut above the rest, potentially due to the prolonged exposure to ambient air or the lower water withdrawal.

We know that changes in temperature, sea level and precipitation will affect how much energy is produced and delivered, as well as how it is consumed, but these results are promising for the future development of power plants.

Previously, modelling studies warned that climate change would significantly lower the efficiency of cooling systems, predicting that plant productivity would drop by 1.3% per 1°C of global warming.

In fairness, their predictions weren’t completely unfitting with the effects of climate change being felt on a continual basis. For example, increasing temperatures may mean prolonged cooling times. With the risks of droughts on an international scale, power plants may well begin to rely more on air cooling which can be incredibly costly, not to mention rising sea levels posing a threat to power plants in coastal locations. Greenpeace, for instance, predicts that nuclear power plants in the UK like Dungeness may be seriously at risk of flooding by 2080 due to rising sea levels and increases in storm surges.

Power plants can require large amounts of water for cooling. With increased demands and economic growth, however, advanced technologies are being applied for water savings in order to counteract this. Hybrid cooling is one example, whereby both dry and wet cooling elements are combined and have the potential to make more than 50% water saving in comparison to closed-loop cooling systems.

There’s no doubt that further research into ways in which climate change will impact power plant output will be conducted to support or contradict these findings, but for now we will continue take some comfort from these statistics and develop ways in which we can stabilise these effects.

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