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In Time of Drought, Conventional Energy Could Leave America High and Dry

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September 20, 2012

In Time of Drought, Conventional Energy Could Leave America High and Dry

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor


Huge demands on increasingly scarce water are a major hidden cost of a "business as usual" approach to American electricity generation that needs to be more fully understood by policymakers and the public, according to a new report jointly released by the Newton, Massachusetts-based Civil Society Institute (CSI (News - Alert)) and the Washington, DC-based Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The “Hidden Costs of Power” report—conducted on behalf of the two nonpartisan, not-for-profit organizations by the Cambridge, Massachusetts consulting and research firm, Synapse Energy Economics—contends that  the Clean Energy Standard (CES (News - Alert)) concept supported by both political parties in the United States is a politically driven, “all-in” approach that does not address public needs—including affordability, reliability, adequate water availability and water quality, enhanced public health, improved environmental protection, and mitigation of climate change.

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“This inside-the-Beltway discussion surrounding the CES is supplanting the Renewable Electricity Standard as a principal public policy vehicle for addressing the electric generation mix in the United States,” says the report’s executive summary, adding, “Under the guise of regional differences, the CES seeks to appease entrenched coal, nuclear and natural gas interests by anointing these resources as ‘clean’ in federal statute.”

Grant Smith, senior energy analyst, Civil Society Institute, said, "The government and energy industries are literally flying blind as they plan for continued reliance on coal, natural gas, nuclear power and industrial biomass to meet our energy needs. Each of these is water-intensive and leads to pollution of water, which is increasingly scarce and in competition for other uses such as agriculture and other commercial uses. The drought intensifies the urgency and the imperative that political leaders in both parties hit the pause button on the headlong rush to support nuclear power and fossil fuel use."

Seth Sheldon PhD, CSI’s lead water/energy analyst, added, "In 2005 the Congress mandated a federal water/energy roadmap. Nearly eight years later, that roadmap has not been produced and—either through bureaucratic inertia or fear of hard political questions—the questions are not even being asked, much less their solutions explored. At a time of significant water scarcity and increasing threats to water quality, we can ill afford to ignore this central question about the future of our energy choices."

The new analysis includes the following water-related findings:

Nuclear power has critical cooling requirements that require huge amounts of water. Roughly 62 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have closed-loop cooling systems. Reactors with closed-loop systems withdraw from 700 gallons to 1,100 gallons of water per megawatt hour (MWh) and lose most of that water to evaporation. Water withdrawals are even higher at open-loop-cooled nuclear plants, which require from 25,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons per megawatt hour to operate. Most of the water is returned, but at a higher temperature and lower quality.

In addition to fouling streams and drinking water through mining and coal-ash dump sites, coal-fired power relies heavily on closed-loop cooling systems, which withdraw from 500 gallons to 600 gallons of water per MWh and lose most of this via evaporation. Withdrawals for open-looped cooled coal-fired power plants are between 20,000-50,000 gallons per MWh. Most of the water is returned, but at a higher temperature and lower quality.

Under a so-called Clean Energy (News - Alert) Standard, biomass would become a much larger source of U.S. electricity generation; however, biomass also requires vast amounts of water. The report notes that a typical 50 megawatt (MW) biomass plant could withdraw roughly 242 million gallons of water per year and lose most of this. Adding 10 of these plants in a region would use 2.42 billion gallons of water per year. For dedicated energy crops, water use for irrigation can be considerable. One study estimates water use for most crops at between 40,000 gallons and 100,000 gallons per MWh, with some crops exceeding this range.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that fracking shale wells can use anywhere from 2 million gallons to 10 million gallons of water per well. The water is often extracted from on-site surface or groundwater supplies. Such huge water withdrawals raise serious concerns about the impacts on ecosystems and drinking water supplies, especially in areas under drought conditions, areas with low seasonal flow, locations with already stressed water supplies, or locations with waters that have sensitive aquatic communities.

By contrast, wind power and solar photovoltaic power require little water in the electricity generation process. Concentrating solar power requires water for cooling purposes, but new technologies are placing greater emphasis on dry cooling. Solar power plants with dry cooling use only around 80 gallons per MWh—about one-tenth of the low-end estimate for nuclear power and one-sixth of the low end estimate for coal-fired power generation.

Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel, Environmental Working Group, said, "The rush to drill for shale gas is one of the best recent examples of how the costs of water pollution are ignored in the pursuit of supposedly cheap energy. When New York regulators estimate a price tag (News - Alert) of $8-10 billion to build a water treatment plant for New York City if shale gas drilling contaminates its upstate water supply, it raises serious questions about whether shale gas really is so cheap and why water costs aren't always considered from the start."

Geoff Keith, senior associate, Synapse Energy Economics Inc., said, "Too often left out of the equation are a number of important 'hidden' costs, also called 'indirect' or 'externalized' costs, associated with each generation technology. These include costs to society such as depletion of water and other resources, air and water pollution, detrimental impacts on human health and the environment, and contributions to global climate change. While direct costs (the monetary cost to build and operate a generating plant) are important to consumers, so too are these indirect costs, whether or not they can be easily expressed in monetary terms."

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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