PhD studentship on global effects of drought on hydroelectric power generation


University of Southampton


Monday, January 4, 2021

Start Date

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


Sustainably meeting the electricity demands of a growing global population, especially in the developing world, is a grand challenge to society. Electricity generation is highly dependent on water, either as hydropower (16% of global production) or via cooling of thermoelectric power plants (70% globally), and therefore vulnerable during droughts and heatwaves. Recent work has evaluated this globally [1] showing reduced production by up to 10% during regional drought. With climate change, regional drought increases will likely make this more problematic, and particularly in the developing world where there are major investments in hydropower. Other regional work [2] has shown that drought-induced curtailment leads to switching to natural gas and imports of fossil fuel-based production with increases in greenhouse gas emissions up to 15%, with implications for meeting emissions policy targets. Despite its significance, little is known about how production and emissions are impacted globally and the environmental impacts on rivers via changes in water flows and temperatures, and how this will change under future climates and energy policies such as the UK net-zero emissions target and the Paris agreement. This project will make first estimates of the global impact of drought on electricity production and associated enhanced emissions and environmental impacts under historic and future scenarios.


The approach will be based on the development of detailed coupled hydrology-energy model simulations of hydrological variability and power plant production/emissions. The modeling will couple the VIC hydrological model to the RAPID river model [3], and using the global power plant database from [1]. This will be enhanced to include the latest World Resources Institute database of power plant development, operational rules, environmental flow regulations, and emission estimates. This will be the first spatially explicit modeling of coupled water resources-electricity generation globally, which is required to understand the impact of local scale, but high capacity, power generation. Research will be undertaken to estimate potential power switching to other fuel sources based on electricity network data. The coupled model will be run historically to understand the impact of regional droughts/heatwaves on power generation and environmental flows/temperatures which can impact aquatic habitats. Simulations will also be developed under different policy scenarios, including current national level policies to meet Paris Agreement commitments, to understand the potential for feedbacks with climate. This approach will allow for the first time, the estimation of drought/heatwave induced regional emissions historically and under future climates, and explore plausible pathways to meeting power generation emissions targets in selected case studies


University of Southampton


The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences. Specific training will include:

- hydrological and power plant modeling

- large climate/hydrological dataset processing and analysis

- high performance computing and parallel processing

- development of climate and policy scenarios, and associated model experiments

- translation of research findings to policy relevant contexts, such as via policy briefs

Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please check for details.  

Background Reading: 

[1] Van Vliet, M., Sheffield, J., Wiberg, D., & Wood, E. (2016). Impacts of recent drought and warm years on water resources and electricity supply worldwide. Environmental Research Letters, 11(12), 1-10. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/12/124021

[2] Herrera-Estrada, J., N. S. Diffenbaugh, F. Wagner, A. Craft, J. Sheffield. Response of electricity sector air pollution emissions to drought conditions in the western United States. Environmental Research Letters, 2018; 13 (12): 124032 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aaf07b

[3] Lin, P., Pan, M., Beck, H. E., Yang, Y., Yamazaki, D., Frasson, R., et al. ( 2019). Global reconstruction of naturalized river flows at 2.94 million reaches. Water Resources Research, 55.

Contact Name

Felix Eigenbrod

Contact Email