How Solar Can Help Avoid Conflicts over Water

A new report warns of the danger in overlooking the use of water in conventional forms of electricity generation. The report highlights the role of solar and other renewables in ensuring the world maintains enough water for a growing population, in the face of increasing droughts.

We recently reported that solar power can benefit the economy by mitigating the economic consequences of climate change.

Solar can also help with another serious issue: water. As the world’s population grows and climate change leads to more frequent and more severe droughts, there’s plenty of cause for concern. Scientists have been predicting for years that water scarcity will lead to global conflicts. But solar and wind power can provide some serious relief.

We’ve already discussed how solar can help with California’s serious drought. Now a new report is backing up that claim and more. The report, from the CNA think tank's Institute for Public Research, highlights the role of solar in fighting water scarcity throughout the world.

The report looked at the North Grid of China, India, France, and the state of Texas, all chosen because water is already posing challenges to power generation there. In studying these areas, researchers applied a new model of the power sector that captures its key relationships with water.

That’s because for most electricity generation, water is a key resource -- one that the researchers warn has been dangerously overlooked. Most of our power plants use large amounts of water to generate electricity -- more than agriculture in most places. In the U.S., about 40% of all the freshwater that’s withdrawn is used to cool power plants, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In water-challenged areas like the ones in the report’s case studies, this is an especially serious issue. Those areas, the researchers claim, will be unable to meet their drinking-water demands by 2040 if they continue to generate electricity the way we do now.

But there’s a way to change this outcome. The report finds that “cost-effective options exist that can cut water used in electricity generation and also reduce emissions of conventional pollutants and carbon dioxide.” Key among the researchers’ recommendations is moving from generating our electricity with nuclear power and fossil fuels (especially coal) to using solar and other renewable power sources.

The report recommends taking these actions:

  • Promoting energy efficiency and demand-side management.

  • Deploying renewable energy technologies that do not require cooling.

  • Avoiding construction of new freshwater-cooled thermoelectric power plants in water-stressed regions.

  • Improving monitoring, data collection, and analysis for policy, planning, and permitting.

  • Increasing research and development support for advanced power sector technologies that reduce water use and provide other benefits.

What the report makes clear is that water scarcity is not a scenario for the distant future. As soon as 2040, we may be facing serious consequences if we continue on our present course. But we have other options.

And we now have something else to add to the list of solar’s many benefits.