Hydro Dams, Power Plants may face trouble due to increased carbon footprint reveal findings.
Infrastructure built around what used to be predictable water flows is also in trouble, experts say.
For instance, glacier-dependent hydropower installations, widespread in Nepal, India, China, and the European Alps, depend on a seasonal flow of glacial runoff.
While precipitation-dependent dams operate based on seasonal rainfall and snowfall.
But climate change is blowing such constants out of the water, experts say.
Melting glaciers due to warming temperatures are sending more runoff to the dams associated with hydropower stationsthan the facilities were designed to handle.
Erratic rainfall is also wreaking havoc: In the Indian city of Surat in 2006, unusually heavy rains overwhelmed an upstream hydroelectric dam, flooding most of the city and killing hundreds.
By contrast, a lack of rainfall between 2008 and 2009 caused hydroelectricity generation in India to fall by nearly 9 percent during those years.
“The unusual or what was seen outside the norm may become the norm,” said Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington, D.C.-based research center.
“We’re used to having a fixed amount of water, and [planners] don’t take into account variability nearly enough,” he said. “Installations have to be designed with that warmer world and that variability in mind.”
Redeeming Power Plans
Such capricious water cycles may spur innovation into new energy technologies, such as renewables, experts say.
“We’ve reached a point where we can no longer assume that we have enough water to build the old kind of energy systems,” said Peter Gleick.
He is the co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.
But even alternatives such as solar power have their own challenges. “Solar thermal plants are great if your only concern is reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Gleick said.
But “there are other environmental issues that we worry about, and one of them is water.”
That’s why some energy companies, such as California-based solar company BrightSource Energy, are experimenting with solar plants that use dry cooling.
During dry cooling, steam turbines create exhaust that enters an air-cooling condenser, where water is condensed from steam and returned to the boiler.
This replaces the need for an influx of fresh water to cool the plant.
For instance the proposed Ivanpah Solar-Energy Generation Station in the Mojave Desert would reduce water usage by 90 percent as compared with wet cooling, according to BrightSource.
Water usage at Ivanpah—limited just to washing mirrors—would amount to the equivalent annual water use of 300 homes in the region.
Yet renewable sources such as solar aren’t immune to forces of nature, environmental-security expert Paskal noted: A solar-powered plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was inundated during historic 2008 floods.
“There’s no point in erecting an array of solar panels if it’s in a floodplain.”
Such lack of foresight in planning energy infrastructure is common, especially in the U.S., where billions of stimulus dollars are being poured into new energy projects that haven’t factored in future catastrophes, Paskal added.