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Fossil fuel–fired power plant operations under a changing climate

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Climate change introduces an uncertain risk to power plant operations as ambient conditions potentially constrain generation through thermodynamic limitations. Previous studies aiming to quantify this risk have suggested a wide range of results, from minimal to disastrous capacity loss. In this analysis, we used a power plant modeling tool to study how a variety of power plant configurations respond to varying meteorological conditions. We developed tools that enable the analysis of the climate impacts on power plant operations for a spectrum of geographic situations and technological configurations. We also used these tools to conduct a case study for US coal and natural gas power plants in 2050, under climate change scenario representative concentration pathway 4.5. Our study indicates that rising air temperatures are unlikely to seriously threaten capacity and efficiency at power plants at most locations, provided that wet recirculating and dry cooling systems are designed adequately. Our results allow for simpler modeling of power plant capacity deratings given ambient conditions, highlight potential regions of risk, and underscore the importance of incorporating climate factors into the electric power system’s design and planning.

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Dr. Michael Craig generously helped gather empirical data to validate the regressions, and Linh Pham helped with data processing.


This project was supported by the National Science Foundation via Grant Number EFRI-1441131 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Award Number A14OAR4310249.

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Correspondence to Aviva Loew.

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Loew, A., Jaramillo, P., Zhai, H. et al. Fossil fuel–fired power plant operations under a changing climate. Climatic Change 163, 619–632 (2020).

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