The power industry has a water addiction, and worse yet, it’s in denial about it. The unmistakable fact is that power plants are responsible for 49 percent of all water withdrawals in the United States, more than the combined amount withdrawn for drinking water and agriculture.
Why so thirsty? Because power plants need a lot of cooling water. To absorb waste heat, many of the nation’s aging fossil fuel and nuclear power plants rely on a ready supply of cool water from rivers, lakes or estuaries. Older plants in particular rely on outdated cooling technology that needlessly sucks in and kills fish and other aquatic life and discharges water at a far higher temperature than when it entered the plant.
State and federal regulators have recently tried to rein in this destructive process, but the power industry has been strongly reluctant to upgrade its cooling equipment. So if damaging entire aquatic ecosystems isn’t a good enough reason to get on board with 21st 20th century technology, how about the risk to electric reliability and the industry’s bottom line? What if that unquenchable thirst for water resulted in power plants having to scale back their power production, or even shutting down completely because of a lack of cooling water?
Wouldn’t that be unbelievable?!
Actually it wouldn’t, because it’s already happening. Power plants that were planned and constructed decades ago are now facing changing rainfall patterns and unusual temperature swings, often causing them to shut down their turbines and wait for wetter and/or cooler days. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report recently that pulls together many different examples of such water-related scenarios already challenging the power industry, whether it’s ready for an increasingly water-constrained world or not.
Here’s a brief summary of UCS’s regional breakdown:
Northwest: Relying on hydropower to provide 60 percent of its electricity generation means the Northwest is particularly susceptible to shifting rain, snowpack and runoff patterns. The change in streamflow of the region’s mighty rivers, which could get more dramatic with climate change, can pose big problems for hydropower generation, electricity pricing and fisheries.
Great Plains: The Great Plains Aquifer is being depleted, yet power plants and other users continue to fight for an increasing share of the dwindling supply. A recent drought caused a Wyoming coal plant to tap into the aquifer for its cooling water, in a direct collision with the region’s irrigation needs.
Southwest: The region where you're likely aware of headline-making water crises, and where an increasing population and its water demands are meeting head-on with severe water constraints. The region’s power plants are more water efficient than most, but still have their needs, and large hydropower facilities are facing record-low reservoir levels.
Midwest: A growing demand for electricity generated by water-intensive coal and nuclear power plants is combining with a growth in population and agricultural demand. During a summer heat wave in 2006, for example, several plants had to reduce power production by up to half because water temperatures were too warm to cool the plants.
Northeast: The region’s nuclear power plants – as well as its fossil-fueled plants – have caused tremendous damage to aquatic ecosystems. Recently many of those plants have begun to face regulatory pressure to end their destructive habits. Some are innovating and reducing their water dependence, like the Kendall Station in Massachusetts, while others continue to resist and expose themselves to future water risks.
Southeast: Two-thirds of freshwater withdrawn in the region goes towards cooling power plants. Recent hot and drought-ridden summers have left water-dependent power plants with either too little water for cooling or with water too warm to efficiently cool the plants. The result is less electricity production exactly when the region’s energy needs are highest.
The water demands of the nation’s current energy infrastructure are increasingly running into conflicts with other uses. In the Southeast, for example, Lake Lanier’s drought-susceptible supply is vital for Atlanta metro area residents, the marine life of Florida’s Apalachicola River and Bay, and for cooling a nuclear power plant that powers much of Alabama. In such a case, why wouldn’t the power industry want to reduce its exposure to risk and rely less on an overtaxed water supply?
So what doesn’t require water for cooling? Air-cooling for power plants is water-free, although comes at a higher cost and requires a relatively small amount of additional power to operate. Wind and solar photovoltaics require no water to generate electricity. Conserving energy and becoming more energy efficient doesn’t require a drop.
As the UCS report concludes:
The choice is simple: continue with business as usual and hope we avoid energy-water collisions (and the costs associated with them), or build a water-smart energy system that can provide us with energy security while protecting our precious water supplies.
Some power plant owners have made valuable upgrades to their cooling systems and operations, or have begun to invest in far less water-intensive renewable energy sources, but sadly this is the exception, not the rule. The choice may be simple, but so far, most of the industry continues to ignore its obvious water problem.