Drought and extreme heat may significantly increase the risk of power shortages in the Western U.S. unless its utilities adopt “climate-proofing” measures, according to new research.

Western regions in the United States are particularly susceptible to climate change. Extreme heat and drought are expected to bring changes in precipitation, air and water temperature, air density, and humidity. To beat the heat, residents and businesses will become increasingly dependent on electricity. And lots of it.

As reported by Bobby Magill in Climate Change Central, the ensuing demand for energy will dramatically constrain the ability of utilities in the 11 Western states to produce electricity. That is, unless they start to climate proof their power grid with renewables and conservation measures. Such are the findings of a new study published in Nature Climate Change by Arizona State researchers Matthew Bartos and Mikhail Chester. Magill explains:

For nearly half of the West’s existing power plants, climate change could reduce their ability to produce electricity by up to 3 percent during an average summer and possibly up to nearly 9 percent during a decade-long drought...Coal-fired power plants in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Colorado are especially vulnerable, the study says.

Indeed, scientists are still trying to figure out the various ways that climate change will influence energy consumption. Air conditioners set to full blast will most certainly tax the grid, but so too will efforts to cool water for use in coal-fired power plants. There’s also population growth to consider.

“Often when we think about the effects of hotter temperatures on electricity provision we focus on the demand side as people consume more electricity for air conditioning,” Chester said. “Our results show that climate change can be expected to impact the electricity supply side as well ultimately raising questions about our ability to meet this growing demand with the current mix.”

Alarmingly, the scientists say that power providers aren’t accounting for climate impacts in their plans, “meaning that they could be overestimating their ability to meet future electricity needs.”

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Bartos and Chester are recommending that power providers strengthen their transmission capacities and apply conservation strategies. They also recommend climate constraints and investing in more resilient renewable energy sources.

“We’re finding that some power generation technologies may be more climate-resilient than others,” noted Chester in an NSF release. “Renewable energy sources are generally less susceptible to climate change effects. More use of renewable sources may contribute to a better climate-proofed power infrastructure.”

Read the entire study at Nature Climate Change: “Impacts of climate change on electric power supply in the Western United States”.

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Image: Nikiko/Pixabay/CC


Contact the author at george@io9.com and follow him on Twitter