The Great Lakes’ water levels hit a record low this winter. According to hydrologist Drew Gronewold of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Water levels on Lake Superior, Michigan and Huron are and have been for the past 15 years below their long-term average.” He noted that the water levels before the 1990s followed changes in precipitation, but then a shift in evaporation rates over the lakes may have caused changes in surface temperature and ice cover.
These changes in water levels, along a variety of other climate-related impacts to our nation’s energy system recently outlined in a report by the Department of Energy (DOE), are causing a variety of problems for Midwestern power plants.
Michigan’s Cloverland Electric Cooperative hydropower plant complained that low levels were allowing too much air into the system, causing a malfunction in turbine efficiency. The Director of Generation, Phil Schmitigal, explained that the air leaking into the tubes reduces head pressure and therefore power output.
Not only hydropower plants are suffering, though. Plants using nuclear energy, coal, or gas to boil water into steam for generators use additional water to cool the steam for reuse – although the height of the water is relatively concerning for these plants, the bigger concern lies in the temperature. As water levels lower, they tend to increase in temperature as well, causing these types of power plants to collect warmer water rather than cooler – potentially decreasing efficiency, lowering output, raising costs, and damaging the environment due to hotter discharge.
The DOE’s report states current efforts may not be enough to reverse these climate conditions that are already affecting energy production and delivery in an aging and stressed U.S. energy system – and they are expected to increase. Increased investment in innovative energy technologies, improved efficiency, and reduced water intensity for power generation is encouraged.
Source: Low Great Lakes levels raise concerns for Midwest power plants, Midwest Energy News
Related: Climate change threatens energy breakdowns, Iowa Energy Center