A new report lays out the risks to the nation’s electricity reliability and drinking water as supplies of fresh water dwindle.
Producing electricity with fossil fuels has traditionally required a lot of water. A lot of the nation’s energy still comes from coal-fired power plants, which use water to make the steam that generates electricity, as well as to cool down the steam down afterwards.
The report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that about 40 percent of the country’s water usage goes toward the energy sector.
This—the scientists argue—isn’t sustainable. As the effects of climate change worsen, droughts are more common. Water shortages, especially in the West, have led to arguments about where the precious supplies should be going.
Peter Frumhoff is the director of science and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“To date, the pathway that we’re on, power sector decisions have really rarely taken water risks into account, either in terms of ensuring the reliability of our electricity supply or the sustainability of our nation’s freshwater resources.”
He says that’s not good for anyone—not power plants, or people who want the water for drinking or irrigation.
The report points out that even some technologies that emit less carbon dioxide—like nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration—still use a lot of water. A coal-fired power plant equipped with carbon capture technology uses about twice as much water as a standard coal plant.
The report says if all of the coal-fired power plants that have been announced for retirement shut down and were replaced with natural gas, there would be significant water savings. But the least water-intensive energy sources are renewables like wind and solar, combined with energy efficiency measures.