Power for Water, Water for Power
Thermoelectric power plants produce roughly 90% of the electricity used in the United States. Although they differ by the type of fuel they use – mainly coal, natural gas, nuclear fission, biomass fuel, and geothermal and solar power, – all plants boil water to create steam to drive turbines to produce electricity.
Therefore, the demand for electricity is directly proportional to the demand for water by the power plants. It is then not at all surprising that the energy sector is the fastest growing water consumer in the US. Changing climate resulting in exceptionally dry and hot conditions and Americans’ high power needs to some extent associated with a warming climate make for an energy-water collision.
Energy-Water Collision: So What?
“Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants” Report of the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA) makes it very clear that energy-water collision is a problem that needs to be addressed by policy-makers. The report cites a number of cases illustrating the effects of this collision on the government, industry, regular consumers, and environment: an outdated cooling system of the Indian Point nuclear plant on New York’s Hudson River that kills millions of fish annually, depletion of aquifers in the arid Southwest, the Prairie Island plant in Minnesota forced to cut electricity generation significantly due to the high temperature of the Mississippi River during the 2006 heat wave, the 2007 drought in the Southeast causing some power plants to cut their output and residents of several cities to cut their water use.
What to do?
The specifics of each case vary, but there is at least one common factor contributing to the collision – an information gap on power plant water use. According to the UCSUSA research, some plants do not report their water use to the EIA at all, some are exempt from reporting based on plant size and technology, some report peak rates of water use rather than the requested annual average rate, and finally, others report zero water use which in reality is not the case.
Elimination of the information gap necessary for improvement of planning, management and policy-making should be a joint effort between power plants regularly reporting accurate facts on water use to the EIA and state agencies, and the latter providing clear guidelines for collection of information and putting received data to work.
Moreover, closing of the information gap is necessary for implementation of the following policies to prevent energy-water collisions. First, low-water or no-water cooling options should be prioritized over once-through and recirculating cooling systems that either withdraw and heat up or consume large amounts of water. Good examples of this prescription at work are the Ivanpah concentrating solar power project in California that will rely on dry cooling, and wind photovoltaics that use essentially no water.
Second, alternatives to fresh-water use could place less stress on local fresh water sources, especially in regions where fresh water resources are scarce. For instance, Harrington Station in Amarillo, Texas switched to treated wastewater to meet its cooling needs.
Third, access to reliable information would allow public officials and power plant owners to seek energy and water efficient options for power plants, and could trigger legislators and public utility commissions to require investments into innovative technologies that reduce negative effects of energy-water collision.
Fourth, the importance of accurate information cannot be overrated as it is essential for creating a public discourse for promotion of water-smart energy choices, as the energy-water collision issue affects a wide range of stakeholders, from power plant owners and legislators on local, state and federal level to millions of everyday consumers of water and electricity for personal, agricultural and industrial needs.
Fifth, regional approach in water-smart policy-making matters because water availability and thus water-stress produced by water plants differ regionally. Likewise, policies should be considered regionally with regards to both local and regional eco-systems.
Dealing with the energy-water collision has to be on the agenda today to make sure we understand how our choices affect water use, to prevent complications of power plants’ dependence on water in a long-term, and to ensure uncompromised availability of vital resources – water and electricity – in the future.