PUR Guide 2012 Fully Updated Version

Available NOW!

This comprehensive self-study certification course is designed to teach the novice or pro everything they need to understand and succeed in every phase of the public utilities business.

Order Now

Water, Water Everywhere Except for Energy Production

The global energy world is swirling in predictions, with most climate scientists saying that climate change is a manmade phenomenon that requires new technologies and cleaner fuels. Irrespective of one’s opinion on the matter is the notion of water and how much of it is required to produce energy.

To that end, the twin battles of combating climate change and conserving water might just be intertwined: Wind energy and rooftop solar panels are two of the most water-efficient forms of producing electricity. And while each technology requires a backup fuel to kick in when the weather does not permit, those green energies are among the cleanest and carbon-free fuels as well.  

To put the matter in perspective, the National Energy Renewable Laboratory has reported that the United States alone withdraws fresh water to the tune of nearly 1,500 gallons per capita each day. That includes 190 gallons a day for domestic and commercial use, 673 gallons a day for industrial use and 600 gallons every day for agricultural use.

It adds that the average thermoelectric plant uses 25 gallons of water to produce one kilowatt-hour of power using current technologies. If a household uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours a month, then 25,000 gallons of water must be withdrawn to provide that power from a coal-fired power plant.

The number jumps to 31,000 gallons a month if nuclear power is used to generate that electricity. Natural gas plants, however, use much less water. By comparison, a typical household might consume 10,000 gallons of water a month.

“In many regions, the water supply is shrinking because of drought and non-sustainable pumping aquifers,” says the lab’s study. “Drought impacts in the West reduce the amount of available water for existing and planned thermal power production, urban and agricultural use, and hydropower.” Greater use of wind energy, it adds, could ease water requirements.

Bryan Hannegan, with the National Energy Renewable Lab, is expected to make those points when he addresses Public Utilities Fortnightly’s disruptive technology conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 17-18. The silver lining here is that as electricity is generated onsite through rooftop solar panels and as clean power rules take effect, less water will be required.

When utilities like Southern Company are shutting down coal plants and replacing them with not only natural gas and nuclear energies but also solar energy, it is an indication of just how serious water-related matters have become. Chief Executive Tom Fanning will also discuss those issues at the Fortnightly confab.

While those technologies may provide an assist, they do not preclude the need for bigger ideas and better solutions when it comes to water. Not only do utilities use it. So does big industry and small residential households. To compound the matter, the demand for electricity in this country is expected to rise by 1.5 percent over the next 20 years. Governments and businesses alike are now calling for concerted conservation efforts and technological advances.

According to the World Policy Institute, coal-and-oil-fired power plants consume roughly twice the water than that of gas-fired facilities while nuclear generation needs three times that of natural gas. Cleaner coal technologies such as coal gasification will reduce that need by as much as half but, emerging concepts like carbon capture and burial could increase consumption between 30-100 percent.

Today, utilities use “one-through cooling” that returns nearly all the water to its original source. But newer technologies can use “closed loop” systems that re-circulate the water.

California, which has suffered from a multi-year drought and which has caused commercial interests to compete for water, is on board: It would have its 19 power plants there phase out their older cooling systems and install modern ones, although they could retrofit their facilities so that they would use less water.

“The fact is that water is critically needed for both energy production and for the growing of food — and the EPA’s report on the 'Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy' notes that 94 percent of our economy is based on this water-energy-food nexus,” says Susan Story, chief executive of American Water, in an interview with the Water Environment Federation. She is also a former executive with Southern Co.

“So, while some might say we can’t afford the investment, the fact is that we can’t afford not to invest” in water-related infrastructure, Story adds, who is in the process of penning a piece on the water-energy nexus for Fortnightly magazine.

While the debate over climate change is heated – no pun intended – the concerns over water scarcity are very real. Those dynamics, more than anything, will provide the impetus for new investment in water technologies and energy production.

Ken Silverstein is Editor-in-Chief for Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine.

Please join Ken at the
Fortnightly’s conference: Utilities in a Time of Change and Challenge, taking place in Scottsdale, Ariz. on November 16-18.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / SergeyNivens