The United States should begin looking at energy and water needs as one issue so that each resource can be sustained in the future – that’s the crux of findings of a report the Department of Energy recently submitted to Congress.
The United States should begin looking at energy and water needs as one issue so that each resource can be sustained in the future – that’s the crux of the findings of a report recently submitted to Congress by the Department of Energy (DOE). A team from Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and the Electric Power Research Institute led the information collection and report development efforts, with Sandia authoring the report.
“Basically, the report notes that energy and water are closely linked,” says key report author Chris Cameron. “The production of energy requires large volumes of water while the treatment and distribution of water is equally dependent upon readily available, low-cost energy.”
The report, “Energy Demands on Water Resources: Report to Congress on the Interdependency of Energy and Water,” was prepared in response to a letter from the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Subcommittees on Energy and Water Development Appropriations.
“As population has increased, demand for energy and water has grown,” the report says. “Competing demands for water supply are affecting the value and availability of the resource. The operation of some energy facilities has been curtailed due to water concerns, and [building] and operation of new energy facilities must take into account the value of water resources.”
Cameron says that in preparing the report, it became obvious the availability of adequate water supplies has an impact on the availability of energy, and energy production and generation activities affect the availability and quality of water. It becomes particularly alarming as populations grow in water-scarce regions of the country like the South and Southwest where demand for power is increasing.
Water is used throughout the energy sector, including resource extraction, refining and processing, electric power generation, storage and transport. Large energy-related facilities, such as power plants, mines and refineries can have a significant impact on local water supplies and water quality.
U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says the report should “serve as a wake-up call to those working to diversify our nation’s energy supply. Those of us from the West already know how real the threat of limited water availability is,” he says. “But the rest of the country should also be concerned because water is increasingly relied on in every aspect of energy production.”
The report notes that thermoelectric power generation accounts for 39 percent of all fresh-water withdrawals and 20 percent of all nonagricultural water consumption in the United States. If new power plants continue to be built with evaporative cooling, consumption of water for electrical energy production could more than double from 3.3 billion gallons a day used in 1995 to about 7.3 billion gallons a day by 2030 – equivalent to the entire country’s domestic water consumption in 1995.
There are a number of alternatives to producing electricity that do not use much water, including wind and solar energy - although they do not necessarily produce the electricity when it is most needed.
“More importantly, while not much water is currently consumed in producing transportation fuels, future transportation production fuels may be obtained from the production of biofuels, hydrogen and coal liquefaction, all of which require more water than is used now in refining petroleum,” Cameron says. “And there are no easy solutions.”
Mike Hightower, coauthor of the report, says that in their research for the report, they discovered that “water managers and energy managers don’t necessarily talk to each other. They don’t take a cooperative system-level approach to energy and water management.”
“If the energy companies and water companies don’t work together to resolve joint issues, we see big problems over the next 25 years,” Hightower says. “They are going to have to look at their water and energy needs in unison, rather than following the current U.S. path of managing water and energy separately.”