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But it will not be averted by defining water as just another component of energy production.

No matter where you live in the U.S. – desert or coast, city or farm – there is a better than 95% chance your electricity comes from water. How so, you might ask, if hydroelectric power accounts for only 8% of our energy production? Steam. Massive quantities of steam.  Oil, coal, gas, and nuclear power plants heat to 212° the 36 trillion gallons of water per year that create the steam that spins the turbines that run the generators that feed the grid that powers your computer.

But what happens when your power company needs your drinking water for its steam?

The engines of energy and water are rolling toward a slow-motion, head-on train wreck. Unless the nation’s power industry comes to terms with the severe limits on the planet’s most abundant resource, the next three decades will drive us into an “energy-water collision,” according to Water Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World, a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It is worth quoting the introductory text at length:

The heat waves and drought that hit the United States in 2011 and 2012 shined a harsh light on the vulnerability of the U.S. electricity sector to extreme weather. During the historic 2011 drought in Texas, power plant operators trucked in water from miles away to keep the plants running, and disputes deepened between cities and utilities seeking to construct new water-intensive coal plants. In 2012, heat and drought forced power plants, from the Gallatin coal plant in Tennessee to the Vermont Yankee nu- clear plant on the Connecticut River, to reduce their output or shut down altogether. That summer, amid low water levels and soaring water temperatures, operators of other plants—at least seven coal and nuclear plants in the Midwest alone—received permission 
to discharge even hotter cooling water, to enable the plants to keep generating. These consecutive summers alone revealed water-related electricity risks across
the country.

The power sector has historically placed large demands on both our air and water. In 2011, electricity generation accounted for one-third of U.S. heat- trapping emissions, the drivers of climate change. Power plants also accounted for more than 40 percent of U.S. freshwater withdrawals in 2005, and are one of the largest “consumers” of freshwater—losing water through evaporation during the cooling process—outside the agricultural sector.

The electricity system our nation built over the second half of the twentieth century helped fuel the growth of the U.S. economy and improve the quality of life of many Americans. Yet we built that system before fully appreciating the reality and risks of climate change, and before converging pressures created the strain on local water resources we see today in many places. This system clearly cannot meet our needs in a future of growing demand for electricity, worsening strains on water resources, and an urgent need to mitigate climate change.

The answer, according to the UCS, is to seize this moment, when old-age is forcing the electric industry to start up another generation of power plants.

Power plant owners, developers, regulators, and legislators are making critical choices now about our nation’s electricity mix in coming decades. For improved resilience of long-lived power projects and the sector as a whole, these decision makers will need to consider the impact of climate change, greater hydrologic variability, higher peak electricity demand, and the need to swiftly and deeply cut carbon emissions.

The electric power industry is not yet getting the message, according to John Rogers, senior energy analyst with UCS’s Climate and Energy Program:

Under the industry’s current — or business-as-usual — path, emissions would stay within 5 percent of current levels and water withdrawals would not drop significantly until after 2030. In our water-constrained world, a 20-year delay in tackling the problem leaves the power industry unnecessarily vulnerable to drought and exacerbates competition with other water users. We can bring water use down faster and further, but only by changing how we get our electricity.

The solution according to the UCS report is not more gas, coal or nuclear, but:

[P}rioritizing low-carbon, water-smart energy choices, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency; upgrading power plant cooling systems with technologies that ease local water stress; and instituting integrated resource planning that connects energy and water decision making.

The energy-water crisis is not a new story. A widely cited 2008 Scientific American article gave similar warnings, as did a special report by IEEE in 2010, which included this fun fact:

Plug your iPhone into the wall, and about half a liter of water must flow through kilometers of pipes, pumps, and the heat exchangers of a power plant. That’s a lot of money and machinery just so you can get a 6–watt-hour charge for your flashy little phone.

But a word of caution about each of these energy-water presentations. There is no energy policy good enough to save American water policy from its downward spiral. As problematic as the energy-water collision is, even more so is the absence of a serious national discussion about a comprehensive, 21st century water policy to match the national debate on energy policy. Water sustainability narrowly viewed as a mere function of energy sustainability will not produce clean drinking water, restore fisheries, or protect swimming beaches.

The complexities of energy are easily matched by the complexities of water. Yet the differences are striking.

  • Water is a profoundly local issue, in a way energy has never been. Water, its access, treatment and delivery, mean something very different in Copemish, Michigan than in Cantu Addition, Texas. But a 500 MW nuclear power plant is plug and play almost anywhere.
  • We monetize energy and we do not monetize water; the marketplace cannot survive without water, but it places no value on it.
  • The environmental community is fearful of proposing much-needed, comprehensive water reform — a fear rightfully based in its preoccupation with protecting the status quo of laws such as the Clean Water Act, which has been under attack for decades.

The “energy-water collision” is coming. UCS says it must be addressed over the next two decades, starting now. But it will not be averted by defining water as just another component of energy production.