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3.3.2. Thermal power plants

Most thermal power plants, including nuclear, fossil and biomass power plants, are reliant on large quantities of cooling water. Reduced cooling water availability causes efficiency losses in power production as well as associated output losses. For example, the combined summer heatwave and drought of 2003 is estimated to have reduced thermoelectric power utilisation rates in Europe by about 5 % (van Vliet et al., 2016a). The extremely hot summer temperatures in 2003 led to restrictions being placed on cooling water withdrawals for power plants throughout Europe. In Germany and France, only power plants equipped with cooling towers were allowed to operate in order to adhere to legal requirements on the temperature of water which can be returned to rivers (Rothstein and Halbig, 2010; WMO, 2017). Also during the heatwaves in 2006, 2009 and 2018, numerous nuclear reactors in France and other countries were temporarily closed because of cooling water shortages (Paskal, 2009; Dubus, 2010; Rübbelke and Vögele, 2011; Reuters, 2018).

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Several studies have used coupled climate-energy-water models to assess the impacts of future climate change on electricity production in Europe. They have estimated that climate change could decrease usable water capacity of thermoelectric power plants in Europe by more than 15 % in some cases by mid-century (van Vliet et al., 2012, 2016b). However, there are large differences depending on the region, the season and the specific cooling technology applied. Another study by the same first author found that the impacts of water constraints on hydropower and thermoelectric generation in Europe combined would increase mean annual wholesale prices for electricity for most European countries, predominantly due to cooling water scarcity of thermal power plants (van Vliet et al., 2013b).

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A more recent study assessed climate change impacts on more than 1 300 thermoelectric power plants and more than 800 water basins throughout Europe. The study found that climate change would increase the number of basins under water stress, and that the majority of vulnerable basins in Europe are located in the Mediterranean region. It also considered four adaptation options to alleviate water stress caused by electricity generation: seawater cooling, dry air cooling, early retirement and enhanced renewable energy generation. Additional seawater cooling of coastal units was seen as the most effective option for the Mediterranean region by 2030 (Behrens et al., 2017). A recent JRC study came to similar conclusions (Bisselink et al., 2018).

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Adaptation options for thermal power plants in water-stressed regions include technological changes such as closed cooling and dry cooling systems (Golombek et al., 2012). However, dry cooling is more costly and could result in efficiency losses in the order of 10 % (Murrant et al., 2015; van Vliet et al., 2016c). A more fundamental adaptation option is switching to alternative generation technologies with low water use (e.g. wind and solar PV). Water scarcity may limit the feasibility of CCS as decarbonisation strategy in regions with cooling water constraints.

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