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U.S. power infrastructure can adapt to climate change, study says

Experts have determined that warming climate conditions may cause power plants in the United States to become less stable and lose their capability to generate electricity. However, a recent study from the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) has produced evidence that the country’s infrastructure may be more adaptable to climate change than previously realized.

Power plant capacity losses have not happened on a regular basis across the United States, but experts believe that global warming could increase the frequency and magnitude of such outages. While the authors of the study acknowledge that global warming will ultimately have a negative impact on power generation, they also find that power facilities are more resilient than they used to be.

Changes driven by policy and economic opportunities have made the power supply both cleaner and more efficient in recent years. Modern power plants rely on fewer natural resources to produce electricity. For example, power facilities that do not use water are more adaptable to drier and warmer conditions than older plants.

These updated power plants are also better able to maintain power supply reserves during peak demands. Lead author Ariel Miara explains that while some regions appear to be vulnerable to the to climate-related changes, an excess of reserves in other regions can provide assistance.

“Almost all power plants will be affected by climate change, but we don’t require all plants to operate at full capacity 24/7,” says Miara. “Lower available capacity due to climate impacts at some plants may be insignificant because the collective available capacity remains sufficient for meeting electricity needs.”

Miara’s team analyzed over 1,000 thermoelectric plants across the United States under future climate conditions and evaluated both their individual and collective performance. Typically, this type of research only takes into account the capacity of individual power plants.

“This study demonstrates how the traditional approach of studying individual power stations fails to assess our true level of vulnerability,” says co-author Charles J. Vörösmarty. “A regional system-wide viewpoint is needed because it allows us to see all sorts of factors and synergies that cannot be articulated by focusing on individual plant behaviors. Our findings about the full system offer a promising result among the otherwise daunting challenges of climate change — that if you search in the correct manner, you can find opportunities to adapt to change.”

The findings of the study are documented in a paper entitled “Climate and Water Resource Change Impacts and Adaptation Potential for U.S. Power Supply,” which appears in the journal Nature Climate Change.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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