The U.S. could dramatically lower the power industry’s draw on strained water supplies by replacing aging power plants with water-smart options such as renewable energy and efficiency, according to a study recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists-led “Energy and Water in a Warming World” Initiative.
Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World claims the choices the industry makes now will decide how much the energy sector will tax the nation’s threatened water supplies and contribute to climate change in the decades to come.
More than 40 percent of U.S. freshwater withdrawals are used for power plant cooling, the report says. These plants also lose several billion gallons of freshwater every day through evaporation and increasing demand and drought are putting a greater strain on water resources.
Low water levels and high water temperatures also can cause power plants to cut their electricity output in order to avoid overheating or harming local water bodies. Such energy and water collisions can leave customers with little or no electricity or with added costs because their electric supplier has to purchase power from elsewhere, as occurred during the past two summers.
However, low natural gas prices and a rash of retirements of old and uncompetitive coal-fired power plants have prompted significant change in the power industry.
“Our electricity system clearly isn’t able to effectively meet our needs as we battle climate change and face a future of expanding electricity demand and increasing water strain,” said Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School. “As old plants are retired or retrofitted and new plants are built, we’ve got to untangle our competing demands for water and energy.”
Examining different paths the nation’s electricity production can take in the coming decades, the study says that while utilities’ ongoing shift to natural gas would decrease water use in the coming decades, its ongoing requirements could still harm water-strained areas. This shift to natural gas also would do little to lower the power sector’s carbon emissions.
“In our water-constrained world, a 20-year delay in tackling the problem leaves the power industry unnecessarily vulnerable to drought and exacerbates competition with other water users,” said John Rogers, co-manager of EW3 and a senior energy analyst with UCS’s Climate and Energy Program. “We can bring water use down faster and further, but only by changing how we get our electricity.”
According to the report, strong investments in renewables and energy efficiency could greatly reduce power generation’s water use and carbon emissions. Under such a scenario, water withdrawals would drop by 97 percent from current levels by 2050, with most of that drop within the next 20 years. This approach also would cut carbon emissions by 90 percent from current levels. A renewables path would also be a much cheaper path for consumers, the report found.
“We have a tremendous opportunity before us,” said Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University. “By increasing energy efficiency and renewables, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions and water use, improve the quality of our water and air, and save money and lives at the same time. How often do we get a chance like that?”
The study concludes that many short-term options exist to reduce power sector water and climate risks such as prioritizing low-carbon, water-smart energy choices, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency; upgrading power plant cooling systems with technologies that ease local water stress; and instituting integrated resource planning that connects energy and water decision making.
Last month, Coca-Cola announced a new set of environmental goals, including returning 100 percent of the water from its manufacturing facilities back to the environment at a level that supports aquatic life by 2020. On Tuesday, Molson Coors Brewing Company announced that in 2012, its water intensity was seven percent lower than in 2008. Since 2008, the company reduced total water consumption by over 12.6 million hectoliters, equivalent to 504 Olympic swimming pools. Lower than expected volumes made it difficult to reduce water intensity and caused the company to fall short of its 2012 target of 15 percent reduction.