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Drought and Heat Disrupt Energy This Summer

Weather and drought have caused disruptions to power generation, made oil drilling harder, and could affect corn ethanol production.
August 16, 2012

High temperatures and drought have made the business of energy harder this summer, affecting everyone from grid operators to oil drillers and corn farmers.

One unit of the Millstone nuclear plant had to be shut down because cooling water was too hot. The U.S. nuclear fleet is operating at lower-than-normal capacity because of cooling challenges. Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Earlier this week, one unit at a nuclear power plant had to be turned off due to elevated water temperatures in the Long Island Sound. Nuclear and fossil fuel power plants use river or ocean water to condense the steam and cool components used to generate electricity. The water temperatures at the Millstone plant in Waterford, Connecticut were higher than what the plant was designed for, forcing a shut down of the 880-megawatt reactor, according to its owner Dominion.

The Midwest grid, which has suffered withering heat and drought this summer, has had similar problems. Power production at one fossil fuel plant had to be curtailed because of high water temperature and a low water level caused another generator to be shut off, according to a representative from the regional grid operator known as Midwest ISO (MISO).

In general, higher water temperatures make cooling more difficult and power generation less efficient, according to a representative from the Electric Power Research Institute. Nuclear and coal-fired power plants are the biggest consumers of water per megawatt-hour, according to EPRI.

Grid operators do extensive planning for the summer when air conditioning adds a heavy load on the grid during peak times. In the case of the Connecticut nuclear plant and Midwest problems, other generators were put online to make up for the drop.

Meanwhile, the drought (see Is Climate Change to Blame for the Current U.S. Drought?) has hit farmers hard this year, which could affect corn ethanol producers. The United States Department of Agriculture last Friday issued deep cuts to its projected corn output, the lowest in five years. 

The lower corn yield has put pressure on policymakers to change biofuel policies. Citing concerns over food availability around the world, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization called for the suspension of corn ethanol subsidies and production mandates. The governors of North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, and Delaware this week made a formal request for a waiver from the Renewable Fuel Standard, which dictates ethanol production levels, because of the low corn estimate.

There are also reports of oil drillers taking extraordinary measures to get the water needed to drill. Large amounts of water are used for hydraulic fracturing, which has made water availability an acute issue for oil extraction in regions hit by drought. A CNN report details how oil drillers in Kansas are importing water from other states, buying water from farmers’ ponds, and drilling their own water wells to maintain operations. The lack of water could slow down the domestic oil boom in the Midwest, according to the report. 

Energy industry watchers often point to the close interdependence between energy and water. In power generation, for example, only agriculture withdraws more water than the utility industry in the U.S. This summer’s drought is a harsh reminder of how the lack of water makes energy production harder across the board.

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