Unless you work at a coal, gas, or nuclear plant, you may not think about water when you think about electricity (certainly at a household level; they don’t mix). But water plays an important part in cooling many power plants, and many power plants also depend on a nearby water source to create steam that drives turbines. So the availability of water for power production is a serious consideration. Not enough water? That power plant could have to shut down. If the water isn’t chilly enough to cool the plant? Same problem.
In a paper published in Nature Energy this week, a group of researchers from the Netherlands estimated how water availability would affect coal, gas, and nuclear plants in the European Union out to 2030. The researchers took into account a changing climate that will likely make water reserves scarcer and warmer, but they also accounted for progressive renewable energy policies in EU member countries, which are already prompting some thermoelectric plants to retire in favor of wind and solar (which need negligible amounts of water to operate). The researchers also counted new coal, gas, and nuclear plants that are in the planning or construction stages and will likely come online before 2030.
The model tracked the “water footprints” of 1,326 thermoelectric power plants in Europe (that is, the amount of water they need to operate), as well as 818 water basins from which those plants draw water. The researchers found that by 2030, plants along 54 water basins could experience reduced power availability because of lack of water for cooling or steam production, up from 47 in 2014. If the EU were to experience summer droughts like those that occurred in 2003 or 2006, power shortages would follow, the paper noted.