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. …