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Clean Power

Published on June 5th, 2012 | by Breath on the Wind


Climate Change Will Turn Off the Lights: New Study Finds Nuclear and Coal at Risk

June 5th, 2012 by  

Cooling tower of the unfinished Chernobyl reactors 5 and 6

A new study by Michelle T. H. van Vliet, John R. Yearsley, Fulco Ludwig, Stefan Vögele, Dennis P. Lettenmaier, and Pavel Kabat released in Nature Climate Change finds that climate change will impact the 91% of US and 78% of European power that is produced by thermal power plants. In the near future, power potential is expected to be reduced from 4 to 16%, with the possibility of a complete system collapse tripling or more.

Thermal Power Plants

Power plants that use heat to produce electricity are thermal power plants. This includes nuclear, coal, solar thermal, gas, and geothermal. Gas is often used in a gas turbine peaking power plant. Such power plants are quickly turned on and off but, historically, have been the most expensive to run. Other plants use the heat to produce steam in a Rankine cycle.

The Rankine Cycle

An old but still common way to make electrify is to boil water to produce steam in a Rankine Cycle to turn a turbine. It is highly inefficient and water-wasteful to let that steam escape after it has done its work, so it must be cooled to a liquid (condensed) and returned to a boiler to complete a cycle.

Condenser Types

Cooling the steam takes place in a condenser. It is most efficient to cool the steam with the coldest possible substance, but cost dictates that it should be cooled from a readily available source. There are two common variations. The first is to directly take in water from a river or lake and pass it over pipes containing the steam. The second also uses a liquid condenser but the water is pumped to a cooling tower where some of it is allowed to evaporate. (You have no doubt seen this water vapor rising from cooling towers.) Although this uses less water, a supply is needed to replace what has evaporated. The once-through method was used in the US mostly before 1970 and the wet cooling tower was used mostly after that time.

A third method uses air to cool the steam (using a dry cooling tower). Because the air is so much warmer and cannot contain as much heat, this is the least efficient and most expensive method, but it is in some cases the most practical option. In a window air conditioner, it is the air-cooled condenser (part that looks like a radiator on the outside) that makes the unit so bulky. A liquid-cooled condenser would be about the size of a thermos.

The Cooling Water

Most of the water used for cooling is freshwater. Together, Europe and North America consume 86% of the water used in the world to cool thermal power plants, 43% of all surface water comsumption.

Prior to construction, power plants are required to specify the source of water resources, including details such as how much water they will use, seasonal variations, and anticipated temperature differences. But what has not been anticipated in some studies now decades old is the warming climate.

The Warming Climate

Base water temperatures are now expected to rise. Water flow will decrease. Neither of these futures was foreseen during original construction. Power plants will be required to cease operations to avoid operating outside the regulated and design boundaries. This is not wild speculation. Last year we reported this has already happened in Tennessee. Not surprisingly, the study also concluded the problem will be most severe in the Southeast US. And in a more recent article, geothermal was being pursued in East Africa because severe seasonal drought was making hydroelectric unreliable.


Preparations must be made prior to increasingly severe weather. We will have to shift to power generation that does not need water, like solar photovoltaics and wind power. Or, at some cost, we must adapt present thermal power plants to limit water use and make them work acceptably in the midst of higher temperature disruptions. A government that does nothing for four years, waiting for the next election cycle, is not an option.

Image Credit: Cooling tower of the unfinished Chernobyl reactors 5 and 6 by Timm Suess (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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About the Author

We share this World; its past, present resources and our combined future. With every aspiration, the very molecules we use for life are passed to others through time and space so that each of us may be considered a Breath on the Wind. This part of the world's consciousness lives in NYC; has worked in law, research, construction, engineering; has traveled, often drawn to Asia; writes on Energy and Electric Vehicle issues and looks forward to all your comments.   "If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect." -- Benjamin Franklin

  • Christian Abel

    For once, an article does NOT single out nuclear plant for needing a cold source!

  • Edward Kerr

    Like the “butcher’s thumb” this issue adds just more weight to the notion that our electrical energy production system is in need of review. Just as do our political and financial system, though possibly well meaning, ironically all three have turned out to be dangerous to life itself. A change of the largest order is necessary or we will become the cookies that are burnt. To again quote Pogo, “we have met the enemy and they is us”….

    Good post, Breath on the Wind…

  • mememine

    More lazy copy and paste journalism. Nice job.

    Hey Good news! I looked up consensus and look what I found:
    Every single one of the scientists and organizations has their own unique definition of CO2’s effects ranging from nothing to unstoppable warming, so consensus of climate change killing our kids certainly cannot exist. It is impossible.
    And if all the millions in the global scientific community had condemned their own children as well as ours to a CO2 death, wouldn’t they be acting like it was the end of the world right about now?
    Would you say climate change isn’t “real” if you were paid to study the effects of it?

    • Bob_Wallace

      I appreciate someone bringing news to a central place. If the original was well written why bother with a massive rewrite?

      Consensus means “a general agreement”. It does not mean unanimous agreement.

      Within the climate science community there is general agreement that the planet is warming which is changing the climate in multiple ways and that warming comes mainly, if not totally, from human activity. Furthermore if the warming is allowed to continue life, as we live it, will become extremely difficult or impossible.

      The remaining discussion is about ‘how much’ and ‘how fast’.

      If I were being paid to research climate and could find proof that climate change was not happening or could find an easy way to prevent it I would be incredibly happy. I would take my place with the best known scientists in the history of the world. I would be one of the richest scientists in the world. If I wished to continue research I could name my university and never worry about funding again.

      Now, since your questions have been answered shouldn’t you be getting off to your Dicks R Us club meeting? Shame to be dickesh and keep the other dicks waiting….

    • Breath on the Wind

      Curious, and thanks as I don’t often get a chance to relate how I write an article. I was attracted to this topic because, as with other articles (click on my name above) it provided a chance to review a technical system. Here the majority of the article looked at Thermal Power plants, the Rankine Cycle, and Condenser Types which I did from memory because I am very familiar with them in Organic Rankine Cycle systems. I then added the sites if someone wanted more. It is a common misconception and somewhat miserly thinking, (similar to “sour grapes”) that proposes, “no one could be familiar with such things because they are unfamiliar to us.”

      Your attention to Climate Change is your preoccupation and not mine nor is reflected in this article that simply reports a study and not once mentions CO2, you did. Neither the original study nor this article comments on the cause of global warming. You suggest it. I did bring in the statistics of the study as that is its very essence along with other information you may find interesting should you take the time to read. But even here you will not find anything that is either copied or pasted. Rather it is read, digested and woven into this case a technical perspective. I will add this, even though it is a small subset of people who doubt the existence of anthropogenic global warming, it is a far smaller subset (read fringe element) that believe the world is not warming at all. You will find that this was a very hot topic of discussion about 3 years ago.

      After reviewing many pictures of cooling towers I was inspired by Joe Vega’s comment on a similar picture as “beautiful and grotesque” which suggested an analogy to how we might view thermal power technology.

      The last sentence in this piece foreshadows my next article and will have a hyperlink when that article is published. You can rest assured that there is nothing here that is fairly characterized as “lazy,” unconsidered or even just a shortcut.

    • Captivation

      In typical Denier fashion, your points are contradictory. If scientists aren’t vocal enough, you interpret this to mean there is no danger. However, if scientists become too vocal they are labelled as “alarmists”. Thus there seems to be no acceptable level of concern that Deniers can tolerate.

      Similarly, you complain there isn’t perfect scientific consensus. But if too much consensus arrives, it is interpreted as conspiracy. Thus there seems to be no acceptable level of consensus that Deniers can tolerate.

      Similarly, you complain that scientists are paid to study the climate but ignore the oil company propagandists who are paid to discredit the science. If the propagandists could find any scientific evidence that CO2 doesn’t trap heat, don’t you think they would publish it? Thus there seems to be no acceptable level of rationality that Deniers can tolerate.

      • Captivation, brilliant points here. Of course, for anyone communicating with such hysterically absurd lovers of a double standard, these contradictions are clear, but you summarize them so succinctly and beautifully here. Well done. 😀

        • Captivation

          Thanks Zachary. Occasional I aspire to saying one clever thing, if only to provide contrast with all the other things I say 🙂 Its a bit like the stripes on a zebra, camouflage to confuse the opposition 🙂

          By the way, great interview with solar power world.

          • i think i like all of what you say 😀

            but this took the cake

  • Instead of creating entropy producing power we should be converting excess heat accumulating in the oceans to energy by the ocean thermal energy conversion method.

  • Captivation

    We knew that Climate Change was uncool in so many ways. But now we learn that it is thermally uncool too. To the point where thermal power generation will be deeply impaired. Thank you Breath on the Wind.

    • Breath on the Wind

      It sounds like you have the beginnings for a slogan: “Thermal Power is UNcool for Climate Generation…” Thanks for the generous comment.

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