Drought in Texas September 2011

A special e-newsletter about dealing with the Texas drought

Power generation and consumers feel the effects of drought

By Danielle Kalisek

Continued drought, decreasing water availability and increasing water temperatures are affecting power plants, which in turn affects energy consumers throughout the state, said experts at The University of Texas at Austin.

“If we see this drought continue, combined with this heat wave, we might see power plants throttling back or curtailing their power output to avoid overheating the water,” said Dr. Michael Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy in the Jackson School of Geosciences and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

Webber’s graduate student, Ashlynn Stillwell, at the university’s Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering said, “Lack of streamflow or declining lake or reservoir levels can mean there is not enough water physically available for power plant cooling. The high temperatures have also increased water temperatures, meaning power plant cooling is not as efficient.”

Webber added that due to the lower water levels, power plants might have to turn off completely because the water simply isn’t available for cooling.

“Consumers are affected when power plants start turning off because of the drought,” Webber said. “If it’s drought from a heat wave, we might see rolling blackouts, and we might see power price spikes. We might see curtailment in parts of the state similar to what we saw in February when we had a water event when we had water pipes freeze, shutting off power plants, and that triggered a whole series of collapses causing rolling power outages in different places.”

Webber and Stillwell’s research focuses on analyzing power plant cooling technologies for mitigating water management challenges such as drought and high temperatures.

Generally, Stillwell said, thermoelectric power plants burn fuel in a furnace-connected boiler to convert high-purity water to steam. “Steam is then condensed back into high-purity water using a non-contact cooling system so the process can continue. That cooling system requires large volumes of water in order to cool and condense steam.”

Webber said during hisTrends and Policy Issues for the Nexus of Energy and Watertestimony to the U.S. Senate, “While the energy-water relationship is already under strain today, trends imply that the strain will be exacerbated unless we take appropriate action. There are four key pieces to this overall trend:

1. Population growth, which drives up total demand for energy and water, 2. Economic growth, which can drive up per capita demand for both energy and water, 3. Climate change, which intensifies the hydrological cycle, and 4. Policy choices, whereby we are choosing to move towards more energy-intensive water and more water-intensive energy.”

During this time, power plants are doing what they can to cope with the drought, Stillwell said. “Unfortunately, the drought and extreme heat have caused high demands for electricity. Meeting that electricity demand (without rolling outages) requires cooling water.”

The high temperatures have increased the electricity demand for air conditioning, so there have been record-setting days of peak electricity use, she said, and meeting the electricity demand requires additional power generation.

“Conserving both water and electricity helps manage the situation on the demand side,” Stillwell said.

Webber added that both consumers and energy producers must keep conservation in mind.

“Conservation is a pretty cheap solution to mitigate some of these effects and buy us some time while we figure out something better.”

For more information: The Energy Water Collision: 10 Things You Should Know

Back to Top