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Power station water
Image: Simon Li

Water – where energy and environment meet

Seventy-one percent of the surface of the Earth is water… ninety-seven percent of which is saline.  Of the remaining three percent, two are locked up in ice caps and glaciers.  So, 7.5 billion humans depend upon just one percent of the water.  This is not just the water we drink.  It is also the water that the plants and animals that we eat depend upon.

Much has already been written about the potential impact of climate change on clean drinking water and on irrigation in drought-stricken regions.  But less attention has been given to the impact of climate change on water used for electricity generation.  However, changes in weather patterns can disrupt electricity generation from two opposite directions.   On the one hand, drought can render hydroelectric systems inoperable.  In two contemporary examples, Vietnamese hydroelectric plants have been forces to suspend operations due to drought, while Venezuela has called a week long public holiday because its hydroelectric plants have been hit by an El Nino-related drought.   But disrupted water supply may not be limited to hydroelectric generation.  Any inland power station that draws water from a lake or river is at risk from prolonged drought.

On the other hand, the very fact that power stations have to be located next to large volumes of water makes them vulnerable to the opposite climate risk – flooding!  At its most extreme, the Fukushima disaster was the result of the plant being built at far too low a level next to a coast that was known to be vulnerable to tsunamis.  But many more power plants (of all kinds) around the planet are located on coasts or next to rivers that may well become more volatile as the climate changes.  Moreover, most will not have taken sea level rises into account when they were built.  If the worst case scenarios turn out to be correct, we could see a lot of power stations become inoperable because they are too frequently under water.

In the UK, where generating capacity is already strained, the potential for climate change-related flooding adds yet another layer of risk to a system that is looking increasingly incapable of keeping the lights on in future.

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