How Saving Water Could Help Keep the Lights On

Via KQED, an article on an earlier report we’ve discussed from the Pacific Institute:

The Gordian knot of interdependence between water & power (not the political kind — that’s another story) has been getting a lot of attention lately as the “water-energy nexus.” A new report from Oakland’s Pacific Institute warns that as population grows and a changing climate further wrings water out of the West, “These trends will intensify water resource conflicts throughout the region.”

Oh, goody. Just what the West needs; more water conflicts.

The Intermountain West

Defined by topography and climate, rather than political boundaries, the report focused attention on a region that takes in all of Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, and portions of seven other states, including a narrow vertical slice of California.

The authors calculate that power plants throughout the region “withdrew” (note that this doesn’t mean “consumed”) more than 1.1 million gallons of water each day to keep running, or about twice the amount that the City of Los Angeles uses in a year.

They further reckon that:

“Under current trends, by 2035, water withdrawals and consumption for electricity generation in the region are projected to increase by 2% and 5%, respectively, over 2010 levels – but water availability is already affecting power plant operations and siting in the Intermountain West.”

The report also catalogs how water is slurped up by the use of fossil fuels in particular, in extraction, refining and transportation.

The authors suggest that the way out of this conundrum is to move aggressively toward less water-intensive renewable energy, while pushing for more advances in energy efficiency.

Energy production casts a long shadow over an already-thirsty West. Steam-generating power plants like this one use the most water.

It’s worth mentioning that with the exception of wind power, most renewable energy requires some water — even photovoltaic solar “farms” have to be watered, so to speak, if only to wash the dust off the panels.

It’s also worth mentioning that the problem goes beyond just the anticipation of scarce water for cooling “thermal” power plants, which includes coal, natural gas, nuclear, and so-called solar-thermal facilities. The authors also point to more subtle pressures on the energy-water nexus:

“Warmer temperatures reduce the efficiency of thermal power plants and of transmission and distribution lines. More power will need to be generated, and more water withdrawn and consumed, to offset these efficiency losses. Likewise, reductions in hydropower generation and increases in electricity demand associated with warmer temperatures will increase demand for additional power generation and as a result, likely increase water withdrawals and consumption.”

In its 66-page report, the Institute concludes that “these alternative strategies can permit increases in electricity production with a significant reduction in total water demands, reducing pressure on scarce and over-allocated water resources.”

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”