Energy Production on “Collision Course” With Water Supply

GLOBE-Net, September 12, 2013 – A new report from the Civil Society Institute (CSI) report prepared by Synapse Energy Economics suggests that dirty energy sources – including coal-fired electric power, nuclear power, and natural gas from fracking – face an even bigger challenge: What are you going to do if the water doesn’t flow?

The CSI report notes: “Currently, 97 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from thermoelectric or hydroelectric generators, which rely on vast quantities of water to produce electricity.

Water is increasingly becoming a limiting factor on U.S. energy production and a key obstacle to maintaining both electricity output and public health and safety, notes the report.

The constraints range from insufficient water supplies to meet power plants’ cooling and pollution control needs-a challenge likely to be exacerbated by climate change, population growth, and competition from other sectors-to the high costs of energy-related water contamination and thermal pollution.

Key report conclusions:

  • Thermoelectric plants withdraw 41 percent of the nation’s fresh water-more than any other sector.
  • Thermoelectric generation compounds the stress already faced by numerous watersheds and adds additional risk for the future. If current trends continue, water supplies will simply be unable to keep up with our growing demands.
  • On an average day, water withdrawals across the nation amount to an estimated 85 billion gallons for coal plants, 45 billion gallons for nuclear plants, and 7 billion gallons for natural gas plants. Additional water is required to extract, process, transport, and store fuel, and this water is often degraded in the process.
  • Coal mining consumes between 70 million and 260 million gallons of water per day.
  • Natural gas fracking requires between two and six million gallons of water per well for injection purposes.

Synapse Associate Melissa Whited said: “Our electric system was built on traditional, water-intensive thermoelectric and hydroelectric generators.

The water requirements of this energy system are enormous and leave it vulnerable to droughts and heat waves… Going forward, our water resources will be further squeezed by population growth coupled with the impacts of climate change.”

Fuel Production and Use Impacts

According to the report, energy-sector impacts on water quality are significant, and are likely to increase if the United States continues to rely heavily on thermoelectric power plants. The following are just a sample of the impacts associated with fuel production and use:

  • Coal mining: Elevated and unsafe levels of arsenic and other heavy metals have repeatedly been found in drinking water in coal mining areas.
  • Uranium mining and milling: Runoff from uranium mine tailings is contaminated not only with uranium and other radioactive materials, but also with toxic heavy metals.
  • Natural gas production: Seepage of fracking fluids into groundwater has contaminated drinking water with toxic chemicals such as benzene.
  • Thermal pollution: Once-through cooling systems withdraw water from rivers, lakes, and estuaries, use it for cooling, and then discharge it at a much higher temperature. These thermal discharges can harm phytoplankton, accelerate the growth of bacteria, increase algal blooms, and otherwise disrupt fish habitats.

GL14The Competition for Water  The competition for water to grow food, to supply fresh water to cities, and to meet energy production demands is intensifying. Balancing the needs of one sector over another is more than a challenge; it’s an imperative. Whose needs are more important? GLOBE 2014 – the next in the celebrated GLOBE Series on the Business of the Environment will explore all aspects of the competition for water.

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