Why Water Issues Demand Conversion to Renewable Energy

By Grant Smith

In surveying the energy landscape, there’s an emerging, inevitable trend.  Old coal and nuclear plants are being decommissioned while new ones are extremely difficult to keep within estimated construction budgets. Age and cost have caught up to the old plants.

For the new, there’s not much good news.  The Edwardsport coal gasification plant in Indiana, the Prairie State coal supercritical plant in Illinois, and the carbon capture demonstration project in Mississippi all suffer from cost overruns and/or scandal.  The new nuclear units at the Vogtle plant are suffering the same cost-overrun issues.  Financially, it’s all over for coal and nuclear.  Bringing up the rear in the demise of the 20th Century energy paradigm are natural gas-fired plants.  Where renewables begin to dominate the market, as in Germany, their ability to make money wanes.  The promise of small, modular technology will prove equally elusive as massive public subsidies will be needed to support the manufacturing supply chain in order to have any hope of bringing down the kilowatt price.

The Water/Energy/Extraction/Climate Nexus

The next nail in the coffin for these passé technologies is water.   The water/energy nexus, as it is known, is a big deal.  Well, not publicly, but internally among federal agencies.  In a response to a letter sent recently to the DOE, the DOE “assures” the Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Alliance “that the Department recognizes the significance of interdependencies between water and energy.”  The US Geological Survey wrote this year, “the Nation faces an increasingly large set of water-resource challenges as water shortages and water-use conflicts become more commonplace.”  The Department of Defense considers climate change and water as national security issues.  Its response to the water/energy/climate nexus?  Building efficiency, renewables, and microgrids at military bases.  In other words, there’s essentially consensus among federal agency analysts that the challenges posed by the water/energy nexus are here to stay and will become more severe.

The water/energy nexus doesn’t stop with power generation.  Extraction industries like coal and natural gas also use voluminous amounts of water.  The end results have been extensive water use and pollution and public health impacts caused by fracking and coal mining.  In one instance, fracking actually ran dry the water supply of a small Texas town.

Conflicts over water are increasing.  There’s the growing competition between fracking firms and the agriculture sector in Colorado, not to mention the law suit to prevent a planned nuclear plant from securing water rights in Utah.

Then there’s extended drought and heat waves that have impacted the operation of thermoelectric plants in Texas, North Carolina, Wyoming, and in Long Island Sound over the last few years.

The bottom line is that the 20th Century electric power mix and its attendant fuel cycles withdraw and consume enormous amounts of water that we can ill afford to squander.  But we have the technology now to replace a large portion of the old electric grid.  There’s the rub.  This is why such a front burner issue isn’t consistently before the public.   The water/energy nexus puts a significant crimp in the President’s and Congress’ all-of-the-above strategy for energy development.

No Help from the Obama Administration

The DOE and OMB under Presidents Bush and Obama buried a report mandated by Congress to create a Water/Energy Roadmap for the country.  The USGS is no longer releasing its water use survey historically published every 5 years.

The research from the water/energy nexus is simply missing and we need to push that information into the public domain.  We also need to adequately fund the USGS analysis of aquifers. More detailed information is important. But constantly studying the issue or setting up bureaucratic methods for internal discussion is the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, particularly when there’s consensus among federal agencies and we have the technology to act now.

There’s no question.  The water/energy nexus issue is a hot potato.  But instead of exhibiting true leadership on the issue our elected officials in Washington DC are playing it politically safe.  They prefer not to rock the boat instead of calling for real change that begins with the phase out of thermoelectric power over time while ramping up investments in sustainable efficiency, renewables, distributed power and storage technologies that would substantially relieve the pressures on water supply we now face.Φ

Grant Smith is a senior energy analyst for the Civil Society Institute.

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