Union of Concerned Scientists

Union of Concerned Scientists Image via Wikipedia

A previous reprint of an article originally published in Ecocentric noted that power plants need lots of water primarily for cooling. “Several Texas power plants that rely on cooling ponds are in a tough spot because their reservoirs aren’t being replenished, and that lack of cooling water means electricity production has to be ramped down exactly when record-breaking heat is causing soaring electricity demand. Regulators are worried that if the drought continues into next spring – and at least one climatologist says Texas is looking at nine more years of drought – several power plants would have to shut down.”

In “The Keys to Energy Sustainability” Dean Bill Chameides now reports that “the Union of Concerned Scientists and a team of independent scientists (two of whom are colleagues of mine here at Duke’s Nicholas School) suggests that a fourth issue — that of water scarcity — also impedes our path to energy sustainability.”

Reliance on freshwater by power plant

Water Woes: Another Piece of the Energy Sustainability Puzzle

“Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants: Electricity’s Thirst for a Precious Resource” highlights how our use of water to generate power is impacting water resources in basins across the United States. Using 2008 data, the report’s authors estimate that U.S. power generation withdraws anywhere between 60 billion to 170 billion gallons of freshwater a day, leading to the daily consumption of three billion to six billion gallons. This jibes with other studies on the issue. In 2005 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that power generation withdrew 143 billion gallons a day accounting for about 40 percent of all freshwater withdrawals; an earlier look, using 1995 data, found that power generation accounted for about three percent of national consumption (or almost 20 percent of non-irrigation nationwide consumption).

But this demand doesn’t hit all basins equally. The Union of Concerned Scientists report found that of the country’s 400 water-stressed basins, power generation contributed to water stress in 78. It also found power generation to be the primary driver of water stress in 25 watersheds in 17 states including North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan and Missouri.* Of course, water dedicated for energy supplies must compete against the imperatives of using water for agriculture and drinking water and therein lies the rub. Water scarcity is not just a major problem for energy generation; given that our species cannot survive without water, this fundamental-to-life resource is even more critical than achieving energy sustainability.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that water scarcity is about a lot more than energy security. It’s about … well, water is something we obviously can’t do without. Addressing water scarcity will require prioritizing needs for agriculture and drinking water relative to energy production as well as coping with increasing pressure from future development and rising population. And there’s another variable impacting water scarcity and that is … you got it, climate change and the likelihood that a warmer planet will lead to increased water shortages in many regions around the globe.

Here’s a suggestion. Why not widen McCollum et al’s argument to include the coupling between energy and water? And if you do, you perhaps further strengthen the imperative to move climate change to the front burner. To more politely borrow from James Carville: It’s not just energy, and it’s not just water; it’s energy, water, and a whole lot more. Smart?