Trade-Off Looms for Arid US Regions: Water or Power?

By Spotts, Peter N | The Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

Trade-Off Looms for Arid US Regions: Water or Power?


Spotts, Peter N, The Christian Science Monitor


The drive to build more power plants for a growing nation - as well as the push to use biofuels - is running smack into the limits of a fundamental resource: water.

Already, a power plant uses three times as much water to provide electricity to the average household than the household itself uses through showers, toilets, and the tap. The total water consumed by electric utilities accounts for 20 percent of all the nonfarm water consumed in the United States. By 2030, utilities could account for up to 60 percent of the nonfarm water, because they use water for cooling and to scrub pollutants.

This water-versus-energy challenge is likely to be most acute in fast-growing regions of the US, such as the Southeast and the arid Southwest. Assuming current climate conditions, continued growth in these regions could eventually require tighter restrictions on water use, on electricity use, or both during the hottest months, when demand for both skyrockets, researchers say. Factor in climate change and the projections look worse. This is prompting utilities to find ways to alleviate the squeeze.

Here in New Mexico, scientists and water managers are already wrestling with the issue. One of the state's main sources of electricity is the San Juan generating station. Its main source of cooling water is the Navajo Reservoir, which straddles the state's border with Colorado. Under today's climate conditions, a three- year drought might require users of the reservoir to cut their water consumption by 18 percent, according to preliminary research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. But a three-year drought with an average temperature rise of 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F.) could mean a 65 percent reduction by the end of the third year.

"This isn't just the San Juan River basin we're talking about," says Andrew Wolfsberg, a hydrologist at the lab. If the US decides to develop oil shale deposits in southern Colorado, which is likely to be water-intensive, it will be difficult to keep oil shale development going, he adds.

A large-scale move to biofuels would be even more water- intensive, says Ronald Pate, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque.

Over the past five years, water availability and quality have become rallying points for opponents of new plants around the country, according to a December 2006 Department of Energy report on the issue. By some estimates, electric utilities plan to build 150 coal-fired generating stations in the US over the next 30 years.

"Utilities are beginning to recognize that water is becoming a greater permitting issue than air quality," says Thomas Feeley III, a technology manager at the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh. …

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Trade-Off Looms for Arid US Regions: Water or Power?
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