“Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.”
—Ronald Reagan, State of the Union address, Jan. 25, 1984
In discussions I have with people about global warming and climate change, most of them are with people who share my concerns about what’s going to happen to our planet if our emissions continue unchecked. Some though are with people on the other end of the spectrum. One thing I’ve realized however is that for most of them, regardless of their opinion on this issue, climate change hasn’t affected them directly.
There are a few, like my allergist colleague Dr. David Fischer who taught me about the prolonged allergy seasons affecting his specialty. But most people haven’t experienced any direct impact, other than noticing warmer winters with less snow. So those who care about climate change tend to do so because they’re worried about future generations. It’s also the reason why those who argue against the issue can do so with a clear conscience: they haven’t seen any devastating effects and haven’t been hurt by it.
A study just published in Nature Climate Change raises some concerns for the fossil fuel industry. It turns out that 91 percent of electricity generated in the US and 78 percent in Europe is thermoelectric. Simply put, that means it comes from nuclear or fossil-fuelled power plants. The term refers to the fact that the electricity is produced by heat boiling water and turning it into steam which then rotates a turbine. With fossil fuels the heat usually comes from burning coal, and with nuclear energy the heat is derived from nuclear reactions.
These power plants require water for cooling the turbine condensers, and that depends on a) the availability of water, and b) the temperature of that water. Many cooling towers recycle the water used, but some pump water from sources like rivers, lakes and seas. After water has absorbed heat and served its purpose, it’s returned to its source. Downstream thermal pollution is a problem that results from this process, what is referred to as “once-through cooling.”
In some of the recent dry summers, power plants in Europe and the southeastern US had to cut back production of electricity. Why? Because the water required for cooling was in short supply. Lower river flows and warmer water temperatures both have an impact on the ability to cool the condensers in thermoelectric power plants.
Given the trends we’ve been observing on the planet with rising global temperatures secondary to our greenhouse gas emissions, the authors of the study predict that over the next fifty years, particularly the time span from 2031 to 2060, the average decrease in summer electricity generation will be anywhere from 6.3 to 19 percent in Europe and 4.4 to 16 percent in the US.
Obviously these kinds of projections take many factors into consideration, and this explains why there’s a wide range covered in the predictions. But given that warm summers have already had an impact on electricity generation, it’s safe to say that this problem will only get worse. And what will be the economic impact of generating less electricity? The cost will go up. The once-through cooling systems that don’t recycle water will be the most vulnerable.
Another consequence will be the higher temperatures of river ecosystems, aggravated by the warmer water being returned after it’s been used in cooling towers. This has the potential to create very serious adverse effects in aquatic life cycles of all sorts of organisms. (Wait, wasn’t I discussing economics here? I shouldn’t be bringing up the negative biologic effects of this issue. Oops, sorry, too late.)
The pessimist in me figures that this won’t cost the fossil fuel industry anything, because they’ll simply pass on the increased cost to the consumer. But the optimist in me (and I honestly believe the more realistic scenario) is that it will be simply one more nail in the coffin for fossil fuels to continue as the dominant player in electricity production. As renewable sources of energy—wind, solar, and geothermal in particular—continue to develop, their costs will go down. According to research published in November 2011 by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, onshore wind energy is expected to drop by about twelve percent over the next few years so that by 2016 it will rival coal, gas and nuclear generators economically.
So the costs of renewable sources of electricity are going to drop. And the costs of thermoelectric sources are going to climb due to more challenging and expensive sources of oil, and the added costs related to less cooling water available. Then where will people go to for their electricity? Most people couldn’t care less about how their electricity is generated (which I think is a little sad, but cheaper is more important than greener for most people). What they care about most is how much things cost.
I look forward to the day when renewable sources of energy become a viable economic competitor to fossil fuels, although I’m not necessarily happy that global warming is one of the factors that will help make it a reality. But wouldn’t it be funny to see the oil industry start to combat climate change so that their future profits won’t be harmed?
Given that protecting profits is generally what has motivated members of that industry in the past, don’t be too surprised if they ultimately take on such an oxymoronic position.