Pacific Institute: ‘Water for Energy — Future Water Needs for Electricity in the Intermountain West’

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From The Pacific Institute:

The production of electricity, from fuel extraction to generation, has growing impacts on both water availability and quality. The new analysis from the Pacific Institute evaluates future water needs for different energy futures and identifies a growing risk of conflicts between electricity production and water availability in the U.S. Intermountain West. The new report also identifies strategies to ensure the long-term sustainable use of both resources.

The study, Water for Energy: Future Water Needs for Electricity in the Intermountain West, examines the water requirements for current and projected electricity generation within the Intermountain West, which is the area bound by the Rocky Mountains in the East and the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains in the West. While water and energy conflicts are increasing across the United States, the Intermountain West is of particular interest for this study because it has a growing population (and growing demand for energy and water), a diverse fuel mix for power generation, and existing water constraints and limitations that are expected to worsen.

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. And in addition to the water needed for electricity generation, population and economic growth will increase demands for water resources, even as climate change makes the available water supply less reliable.

Here’s the link to the report. Here’s the introduction:

In the past few years, there has been a growing interest in the complex connections between energy and water, typically called the energy-water nexus. For much of the 20th century, these two vital resources have largely been analyzed and managed separately, with different tools, institutions, definitions, and objectives. We now know, however, that there are very important links between water and energy and that long-term sustainable use of both resources requires more comprehensive and integrated study and management. The current report addresses the water implications of energy choices and offers some new insights into the water risks of different electricity futures.1

The energy sector has a major impact on the availability and quality of the nation’s water resources (Table 1). Water is used to extract and produce energy; process and refine fuels; construct, operate, and maintain energy generation facilities; cool power plants; generate hydroelectricity; and dispose of energy-sector wastes. Some of this water is consumed during operation or contaminated until it is unfit for further use; often much of it is withdrawn, used once, and returned to a watershed for use by other sectors of society.

Energy use also affects water quality and ultimately human and environment health. The discharge of waste heat from cooling systems, for example, raises the temperature of rivers and lakes, which affects aquatic ecosystems. Wastewaters from fossil-fuel or uranium mining operations, hydraulic fracturing, boilers, and cooling systems may be contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive materials, acids, organic materials, suspended solids, or other chemicals (EPA 2011, Urbina 2011). Nuclear fuel production plants, uranium mill tailings ponds, and under unusual circumstances, nuclear power plants, have caused radioactive contamination of ground- and surface-water supplies (EPA 2010). Too often, however, these water-quality impacts are ignored or inadequately understood.

Thanks to KUNC’s Kirk Siegler for the heads up via Twitter (@kunc). Here’s his post. He writes:

The report, “Water for Energy,” concludes that water scarcity in the inter-mountain West will continue to pose problems for electricity production unless a set of concrete action steps are taken.

Heather Cooley, the report’s lead author, says many western power plants and other energy producers such as oil and gas operations aren’t implementing as many conservation tools as they could.

“By adopting dry cooling, by expanding energy efficiency improvements and having greater reliance on renewables, we can dramatically reduce the water requirements for electricity generation in the West, and therefore reduce our vulnerability to future water supply constraint,” Cooley said.

More energy policy coverage here.

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