Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.


Major strategic issues facing the global thermoelectric sector include environmental regulation, climate change and increasing electricity demand. We have addressed such issues by modeling thermoelectric generation in the Northeastern United States that is reliant on cooling under five sensitivity tests to evaluate losses/gains in power production, thermal pollution and suitable aquatic habitat, comparing the contemporary baseline (2000–2010) with potential future states. Integral to the analysis, we developed a methodology to quantify river water availability for cooling, which we define as an ecosystem service.

Projected climate conditions reduce river water available for efficient power plant operations and the river's capacity to absorb waste heat, causing a loss of regional thermoelectric generation (RTG) (2.5%) in some summers that, compared to the contemporary baseline, is equal to the summertime electricity consumption of 1.3 million Northeastern US homes. Vulnerabilities to warm temperatures and thermal pollution can be alleviated through the use of more efficient natural gas (NG) power plants that have a reduced reliance on cooling water. Conversion of once-through (OT) to cooling tower (CT) systems and the Clean Water Act (CWA) temperature limit regulation, both of which reduce efficiencies at the single plant level, show potential to yield beneficial increases in RTG. This is achieved by obviating the need for large volumes of river water, thereby reducing plant-to-plant interferences through lowering the impact of upstream thermal pollution and preserving a minimum standard of cooling water. The results and methodology framework presented here, which can be extrapolated to other regional assessments with contrasting climates and thermoelectric profiles, can identify opportunities and support decision-making to achieve more efficient energy systems and riverine ecosystem protection.


Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

Environmental Research Letters


Institute of Physics (IOP)

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Document Type



© 2013 IOP Publishing Ltd.


This is an article published by Institute of Physics (IOP) in Environmental Research Letters in 2013, available online: