Energy and Water Collisions: Drought Implications

As we enter the dog days of summer, much of the Southeast region has once again succumbed to drought conditions, especially Georgia and neighboring Alabama. And nationally, drought is plaguing much of the country and affecting not just the “usual” suspects out West–even presumed “water rich” regions including the Southeast and areas along the East Coast are being impacted by record low rainfalls and blazing temperatures. As we have pointed out before, especially through our recent work with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on the collaborative Energy and Water in a Warming World (EW3) initiative, our existing electricity infrastructure is especially vulnerable given it’s reliance on the availability of abundant water supplies.

These possible disruptions have been dubbed “Energy and Water Collisions.” These collisions have been captured in a new infographic series just released by UCS, which is described in their recent blog post, “2012 U.S. Drought and Heat Expose Electricity Supply Risks.”

Energy & Water Collisions Infographic

For example, a repeat example of the water energy collision has been the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) three-reactor Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama along the Tennessee River. During three of the last five summers (2007, 2010 and 2011) TVA has had to reduce generation in order to prevent dumping too-hot water back into the river, thus avoiding violating state environmental permit regulations. This energy water collision has also had financial impacts. As reported in the EW3 report, Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants: Electricity’s Thirst for a Precious Resource, in 2010 this reduction and subsequent need for TVA to replace the lost power cost ratepayers $50 million. TVA has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new cooling tower to help prevent this from happening in the future.

But unfortunately, this situation may occur again, not only at Browns Ferry but potentially also at other existing power plants or those on the drawing board. USA Today reported on a recent study published in Nature Climate Change that highlighted the Browns Ferry problems and also determined that, “The likelihood of extreme drops in power generation from total or partial plant shutdowns will triple in the next 50 years.”

Focusing here on the Southeast, thermoelectric power plants in Georgia are already the largest water use sector in the state and this may only get worse if proposals to build new coal and nuclear plants materialize. Both of these technologies can be incredibly water-intensive, with nuclear power generally considered the most water-intensive energy option.

For instance, Power4Georgians proposal to build a new 850MW coal plant in Washington Co. could seriously impact local waterways. A recent press release discussing the drought and implications that poses to our region not only today but in the future stated that:

The Oconee River is running so low, that if the new coal-fired power plant proposed in Washington County, Plant Washington, were up and running it would not be permitted to tap the river for its cooling water. Recent analysis by local water groups concludes that nearly every day in May the plant owner, Power4Georgians, would have had to rely on its “Plan B” – tapping limited precious groundwater because, according to Georgia Environmental Protection Division rules, the river would have been too low to meet the plant’s water needs.

Plant Vogtle's Existing Cooling Towers

Also in Georgia, two new nuclear reactors are proposed for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Burke Co. along the Savannah River. As stated in a 2009 report I co-authored with Dr. Shawn Young, these two Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactors are estimated to use 55-88 million gallons of water per day from the Savannah River with 50-75% consumptive loss, meaning 50-75% of that water is evaporative loss. To put this consumptive water loss in perspective, with average per capita daily water use in Georgia at 75 gallons from surface and ground water sources, this means the two existing and two proposed reactors could use enough water to supply 1.4 to 2.3 million Georgians.

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently hosted a media briefing (listen to the audio here) that brought together concerned river groups in Alabama and Georgia along with energy and water experts to discuss these troubling dynamics, while also highlighting another recent report for the River Network that delves into the energy-water connection, Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity.

All of this attention and collaboration finally being paid to the energy-water connection underscores the need for water and energy planning to go hand-in-hand, along with considering the future implications to both from climate change. John Rogers, a UCS senior energy analyst and co-author of the EW3 report, recently said:

“There are places in which so much water is being removed from rivers and lakes for drinking water, agriculture, and current power plants that if you add in more power plant water demand, something will have to give. Developers, regulators, and investors really need to closely look at how new plants would affect water sources before backing those plants. Even though people think of the eastern U.S. as having plenty of water, current problems and trends in water demand and supply show that energy-water stresses will only increase in lots of places. Research shows that climate change has and will likely continue to increase the frequency of drought in certain parts of the country, including in the Southeast, making low- or no-water options like wind, solar photovoltaics, and energy efficiency even more valuable.”

We believe it is long overdue to start planning for tomorrow in order to ensure that future generations not only have clean, safe and affordable energy supplies but also plentiful water resources. Thankfully there are many energy choices available that are less water-intensive and low-carbon emitting including energy efficiency and conservation and renewables, such as solar and wind. And there are technology options available that can reduce water use at existing power plants. Beginning to understand the water-energy connection and committing to work to prevent future energy water collisions from happening is of paramount importance not only here in the southeast, but also across the country and globally. To get involved and learn more, please visit the Energy and Water in a Warming World initiative.

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