Thermal Pollution Impacts on Rivers and Power Supply in the Mississippi River Watershed

Ariel Miara, Charles J. Vörösmarty, Jordan E. Macknick, Vincent C. Tidwell, Balazs Fekete, Fabio Corsi, Robin Newmark

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus Citations


Thermal pollution from power plants degrades riverine ecosystems with ramifications beyond the natural environment as it affects power supply. The transport of thermal effluents along river reaches may lead to plant-to-plant interferences by elevating condenser inlet temperatures at downstream locations, which lower thermal efficiencies and trigger regulatory-forced power curtailments. We evaluate thermal pollution impacts on rivers and power supply across 128 plants with once-through cooling technologies in the Mississippi River watershed. By leveraging river network topologies with higher resolutions (0.05°) than previous studies, we reveal the need to address the issue in a more spatially resolved manner, capable of uncovering diverse impacts across individual plants, river reaches and sub-basins. Results show that the use of coarse river network resolutions may lead to substantial overestimations in magnitude and length of impaired river reaches. Overall, there is a modest limitation on power production due to thermal pollution, given existing infrastructure, regulatory and climate conditions. However, tradeoffs between thermal pollution and electricity generation show important implications for the role of alternative cooling technologies and environmental regulation under current and future climates. Recirculating cooling technologies may nearly eliminate thermal pollution and improve power system reliability under stressed climate-water conditions. Regulatory limits also reduce thermal pollution, but at the expense of significant reductions in electricity generation capacity. However, results show several instances when power production capacity rises at individual plants when regulatory limits reduce upstream thermal pollution. These dynamics across energy-water systems highlight the need for high-resolution simulations and the value of coherent planning and optimization across infrastructure with mutual dependencies on natural resources to overcome climate-water constraints on productivity and bring to fruition energy and environmental win-win opportunities.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number034033
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-6A20-70881


  • Clean Water Act
  • climate
  • cooling systems
  • energy-water nexus
  • thermal curtailments


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