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Publication Date
12 December 2022

Climate Extremes and the Future of the Power Sector in the U.S. Heartland: A Multi-Sector Dynamics Perspective



A wide range of electric generation technologies can play a major role in future power production in the heartland of the U.S. for consumption. Different generation technologies have different vulnerabilities to a changing climate and its extremes. The cooling cycle of thermal power plants are vulnerable to rising summer temperatures that increase cooling water temperatures and subsequently add cost and possible curtailments. Drought could limit hydropower availability and further limit thermoelectric cooling. Photovoltaics are less efficient in higher temperatures, and wind resources may change or shift with the changing climate. Rising temperatures are also likely to increase summer peak demands as a result of more intense and broad use of air conditioning, even in currently cooler climates. In addition, high temperatures and high demand pose risks for failure of critical grid infrastructure, such as large power transformers. This combination of stressors raises important research questions: What is the risk of a “perfect storm” that could lead to a tipping point failure of the power system? Are some evolutions of the power sector more or less vulnerable to climate change?

As a preliminary investigation, we review existing word in the area and consider a range of realistic power generation scenarios in the US Heartland (Figure 1). We evaluate the sensitivities of various technologies and demand to climate change and associated extremes, and consider the possible range of changes in their production. We then examine the possible effects on the evolution of the power sector by mid-century in various scenarios, taking a Multi-Sectoral Dynamics perspective by focusing on the interaction of sectors (different supply technologies and different demand sectors) and the effects of multiple stressors (both gradual climate change and changes in extreme events) on the systems. Preliminarily, summer months are a more likely period for a potential “perfect storm,” where a combination of extreme heat, drought, and stagnant meteorological conditions could have significant negative effects on all technologies, while increasing peak power demands across the region. Our results are expected to help develop a research agenda to better resolve future vulnerabilities and suggest strategies to increase power sector resilience.

Gurgel, Angelo, Adam Schlosser, Mei Yuan, Xiang Gao, Karen Tapia-Ahumada, Jen Morris, and John M Reilly. 2022. “Climate Extremes And The Future Of The Power Sector In The U.s. Heartland: A Multi-Sector Dynamics Perspective”. In American Geophysical Union (Agu) Fall Meeting. Chicago, IL/Online.
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