Power plantsIt’s Getting Hot in Here: Warming World Will Fry Power Plant Production

Published 13 January 2021

There’s no doubt the Earth’s temperatures are going up. The power plants that keep air conditioners pushing out cold air could soon be in a vicious cycle in a warming world–not able to keep up with growing demands on hotter days and driving up greenhouse gas emissions to dangerous levels.

There’s no doubt the Earth’s temperatures are going up. According to a December report by the World Meteorological Organization, 2020 is on track to be one of the three hottest years on record, already within the warmest decade to date. During the year’s hottest months, many people rely on electricity-generated cooling systems to remain comfortable. But the power plants that keep air conditioners pushing out cold air could soon be in a vicious cycle in a warming world–not able to keep up with growing demands on hotter days and driving up greenhouse gas emissions to dangerous levels.

Ethan Coffel, assistant professor of geography and the environment in the Maxwell School, explores this power and climate struggle in the research paper, “Thermal power generation is disadvantaged in a thermal world.” The work published this month in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters. Professor Coffel answered five questions by Syracuse University News’s Daryl Lovell about the new findings and how warming temperatures will impact every part of our power infrastructure.

Daryl Lovell: Can you describe your research?
Ethan Coffel:
 We show that the thermal power plants that currently generate most of our electricity are already having to reduce their electricity output on hot days due to cooling limitations. On the hottest days, power plant capacity can be reduced by more than 10 percent because the air and water that are used to cool the plants is too warm. This lost generation capacity is a problem because these hot days are when electricity is most needed to run air conditioners.

As global warming makes heat waves more frequent, intense and long, the negative effects of heat on power plants will become more pronounced. With 2 degrees Celsius of global warming–the upper target agreed to in the 2015 Paris Accord–power plant outages on hot days could nearly double from today’s level.

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