Global Warming Endangers Energy Production in the United States and Europe

Energy production from conventional fossil fuel-powered plant could be disrupted as a consequence of climate changeThe energy supplies for the United States and Europe are at risk, thanks to increasing complications attributed to climate change.  In an ironic twist of fate, the rising water temperatures and reduced river flow caused by global warming is lowering the energy output of thermoelectric power plants, such as coal-fired power plants, that require constant supplies of water for cooling purposes.  In other words, the problem that some of these power plants help create is now impacting their ability to perform.

Climate change causing blackouts

Extreme drops in power generation, blackouts and full or partial shutdowns of thermoelectric power plants are expected to triple over the next 50 years, according to a report in Nature Climate Change.  Reduced flow in rivers and ever increasing water temperatures decrease the cooling capabilities that nuclear and coal-fired power plants have come to rely on.  While this study shines a light on the needs for better water conservation methods, it also points out how significant of a weakness thermal cooling is for our existing power grid.

The co-author of the study, Dennis Lettenmaier, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering, said “this study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something that we’re going to have to revisit.”

In the summer of 2011, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama had to go offline on more than one occasion because the Tennessee River water was just too hot to provide any cooling capabilities.  The study finds this was not an isolated event, in fact the findings predict that energy efficiency or power production in the U.S. will decrease 4 percent to 16 percent and even higher in Europe due to a reduction in cooling water between 2031 and 2060.

The double whammy for dirty power

Reduction in available energy production is not the only problem we face as the first author of the study pointed out.  “Higher electricity prices and disruption to supply are significant concerns for the energy sector and consumers, but another growing concern is the environmental impact of increasing water temperatures on river ecosystems, affecting, for example, life cycles of aquatic organisms,” said Michelle van Vliet, a doctoral student at the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands.

While most of the water used in the cooling process is recycled, it is discharged at higher temperatures causing downstream thermal pollution.  This coupled with regulations on how much water can be used and at what temperatures it can be released will likely cause conflicts between energy production and environmental protections.

Renewable energy and natural gas can help

An obvious solution to the problem is to embrace a renewable energy initiative aimed at reducing some of the burden our power grid is faced with.  Most forms of renewable energy have no carbon footprint, which in turn will help curb the global warming trend and remove the dependence on water for cooling.

While renewable energy is a preferred method for those looking to attain a more sustainable living, the study did indicate some alternatives that could help curb the problem in more traditional ways.  An example was to relocate some of these nuclear or coal fired plants near salt water supplies, to lower the dependence on the ever valuable freshwater.  Additionally, using gas-powered plants could prove to be more efficient than nuclear or fossil fueled plants which also use less water.

The problem is clear; our energy production methods are based on outdated technologies which are inefficient and dirty.  This research coupled with actionable plans can create a new influx of energy efficiency jobs that both the U.S. and Europe desperately need.  The question is, what will it take for the population at large to decide it is time to change?

Matthew Speer is the founder of, a site dedicated to providing real solutions for real people – helping everyone embrace a sustainable lifestyle.

Get in Touch

  1. Sounds like more chicken little nonsense like the claim that snow depth would decreas in the west, and that British children would never see snow again. Just because one power plant shut down for a lack of rain, does not a proper study make.

  2. Hey kids, how about we take a LOOK at Tennessee’s temperature history to see how much warming has been going on?

    Hmmm… looks like this hypothesis has a serious hole in it considering Tennessee’s temperature trend over the last 100+ years is NEGATIVE.

    Considering that most of the coal fired power plants were built in the 50’s and 60′ – the trend since that time is obviously even MORE negative.

    But of course we should remain frightened because a power plant designed to run in all seasons with temperatures ranging from -20 to 100 F cannot possibly be expected to operate when global temperatures go up 2F over the next 100 years…

    Epic FAIL!

  3. It seems as though many readers have focused on a singular example that I provided in the article. In fact, the study covers a much more broad area and does provide additional examples of this occurring. I recommend you read the full research study and perhaps review some additional evidential information found on NASA’s site ( You don’t have to agree, contrary arguments are always welcome, though keeping them educated and informed is always a better approach.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Articles

Stay in touch

To be updated with the latest climate and environmental news and commentary. Learning to live in the Anthropocene.


Latest Posts