Energy and Water Collisions: Drought Implications

Via Clean Energy, a look at the watergy implications of the drought:

As we enter the dog days of summer, much of the Southeast region has once again succumbed to drought conditions, especially Georgia and neighboring Alabama. And nationally, drought is plaguing much of the country and affecting not just the “usual” suspects out West–even presumed “water rich” regions including the South and areas along the East Coast are being impacted by record low rainfalls and blazing temperatures. As we have pointed out before, especially through our recent work with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on the collaborative Energy and Water in a Warming World (EW3) initiative, our existing electricity infrastructure is especially vulnerable given it’s reliance on the availability of abundant water supplies.

These possible disruptions have been dubbed “Energy and Water Collisions.” These collisions have been captured in a new infographic series just released by UCS, which is described in their recent blog post, “2012 U.S. Drought and Heat Expose Electricity Supply Risks.”

Energy & Water Collisions Infographic – UCS

For example, a repeat example of the water energy collision has been the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) three-reactor Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama along the Tennessee River. During three of the last five summers (2007, 2010 and 2011) TVA has had to reduce generation due typically to high water temperatures in the river that would have led to the facility violating state environmental permit regulations. This energy water collision has also had financial impacts. As reported in the EW3 report, Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants: Electricity’s Thirst for a Precious Resource, in 2010 this reduction and subsequent need to replace the lost power cost ratepayers more than $50 million in higher electric bills. TVA has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new cooling tower to help prevent this from happening in the future.But unfortunately, this situation may occur again, not only at Browns Ferry but potentially also at other existing power plants or those on the drawing board. USA Today reported on a recent study published in Nature Climate Change that highlighted the Browns Ferry problems and also determined that, “The likelihood of extreme drops in power generation from total or partial plant shutdowns will triple in the next 50 years.”

Focusing here on the Southeast, thermoelectric power plants in Georgia are already the largest water use sector in the state and this may only get worse if proposals to build new coal and nuclear plants materialize. Both of these technologies are incredibly water-intensive, with nuclear power generally considered the most water-intensive energy option.

For instance, Power4Georgians proposal to build an 850MW new coal plant in Washington Co. could seriously impact local waterways. During a recent press event discussing the drought and implications that poses to our region not only today but in the future, it was stated that:

The Oconee River is running so low, that if the new coal-fired power plant proposed in Washington County, Plant Washington, were up and running it would not be permitted to tap the river for its cooling water. Recent analysis by local water groups concludes that nearly every day in May the plant owner, Power4Georigans, would have had to rely on its “Plan B” – tapping limited precious groundwater because, according to Georgia Environmental Protection Division rules, the river would have been too low to meet the plant’s water needs.

Plant Vogtle’s Existing Cooling Towers

Also in Georgia, two new nuclear reactors are proposed for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Burke Co. along the Savannah River. As stated in a 2009 report I co-authored with Dr. Shawn Young, these two Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactors are estimated to use 55-88 million gallons of water per day from the Savannah River with 50-75% consumptive loss. To put this consumptive water loss in perspective, with average per capita daily water use in Georgia at 75 gallons from surface and ground water sources, this means the two existing and two proposed reactors could use enough water to supply 1.4 to 2.3 million Georgians.

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently hosted a media briefing (listen to the audio here) that brought together concerned river groups in Alabama and Georgia along with energy and water experts to discuss these troubling dynamics, while also highlighting another recent report for the River Network that delves into the water-energy connection, Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity. All of this attention and collaboration finally being paid to the energy-water connection underscores the need for water and energy planning to go hand-in-hand, along with considering the future implications to both from climate change. John Rogers, a UCS senior energy analyst and co-author of the EW3 report, said:

“There are places in which so much water is being removed from rivers and lakes for drinking water, agriculture, and current power plants that if you add in more power plant water demand, something will have to give. Developers, regulators, and investors really need to closely look at how new plants would affect water sources before backing those plants. Even though people think of the eastern U.S. as having plenty of water, current problems and trends in water demand and supply show that energy-water stresses will only increase in lots of places. Research shows that climate change has and will likely continue to increase the frequency of drought in certain parts of the country, including in the Southeast, making low- or no-water options like wind, solar photovoltaics, and energy efficiency even more valuable.”

We believe it is long overdue to start planning for tomorrow in order to ensure that future generations not only have clean, safe and affordable energy supplies but also plentiful water resources. Thankfully there are many energy choices available that are less water-intensive and low-carbon emitting including energy efficiency and conservation and renewables, such as solar and wind. And there are technology options available that can reduce water use at existing power plants. Beginning to understand the water-energy connection and committing to work to prevent future energy water collisions from happening is of paramount importance not only to our region here in the southeast, but also across the country and globally. To get involved and learn more, please visit the Energy and Water in a Warming World initiative.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 30th, 2012 at 5:32 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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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.”