Time for Electricity to Kick Its Water Habit

The last several years of heat waves and drought have given the US power sector an eye-opening glimpse into a potentially grim future:

  • Texas power plants operators trucked in water to keep their plants running amid the 2011 drought.
  • A Connecticut nuclear power plant shut down in the summer of 2012 because water from Long Island Sound was too warm to cool the plant.
  • In 2012 seven coal and nuclear plants in the Midwest got permission to discharge used cooling water so hot that it can kill fish and other organisms.

Clearly the overreliance of electricity on water has become an increasingly risky and difficult relationship to maintain in an age of weather extremes. But what should be done differently?

In a new report, experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists examine different future energy scenarios and find that it is possible not only to scale back energy's reliance on water, but also to reduce carbon emissions and provide reliable power at a reasonable price.

The report, Water-Smart Power, examines three major challenges:

  1. Our energy system already has a water problem: Power plants put heavy pressure on water supplies, which also leaves those plants vulnerable to drought and heat waves.
  2. Competition for water is heating up: Power plants always got the water they needed even when supplies got tight, but now there's pushback from other water users.
  3. Climate change is making things worse: Rising temperatures and more intense drought are expected, which means that conflicts between energy and water are just going to become more frequent.

...it's a matter of making the right decisions today, as the country pivots away from coal, to secure water and power for the long-term.

The report finds that the best way to meet these challenges, while also reducing carbon emissions and lowering electricity bills, is by aggressively pursuing a combination of renewables and energy efficiency.

The technology needed to follow this wiser path is available now, and it just so happens that a huge shift in America's energy system is opening up an incredible opportunity to better prepare for the future. The amount of electricity generated by burning coal is shrinking and being replaced by renewables and natural gas. Because decisions made about the power sector are long-lived – power purchase agreements can last over a decade and power plants for decades more – it's a matter of making the right decisions today, as the country pivots away from coal, to secure water and power for the long-term.

As Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University and one of the report’s scientific advisors says, "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?"

Indeed as we storm ahead into a future of growing water and energy conflict, it's time to take that chance.