Roster of experts available for interviews with journalists
In November 2009, in pursuit of a cleaner energy development strategy that also reduced carbon and other climate changing gases, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his agency had identified 23 million acres of public lands in six southwestern states as prime locations for new solar electrical generating plants. Salazar also said that the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department unit that owns and oversees much of the western public domain, was encouraging new solar plant construction with a “fast track” permitting process. The process would make some plants eligible for federal grants and loans under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included nearly $100 billion for clean energy investment.
The dual announcement was anticipated by executives in the solar generating industry, who responded with an avalanche of applications to federal and state agencies to build more than 180 new solar plants in California, Nevada and Arizona. But senior leaders of other Interior Department units, most notably the U.S. National Park Service, also responded to the agency’s promotion of solar energy with unusually sharp critiques of the potential consequences to the Southwest’s natural resources, especially the region’s scarce water supplies.
Solar generating plants that use conventional cooling technology use two to three times as much water as coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Newer technology that relies on air for cooling uses much less water, but also is less efficient in generating power, thus requiring more land. The Congressional Research Service recently estimated that solar power plants cooled with water could generate 53,000 megawatts of electricity in the Southwest, equal to more than 50 large coal-fired utilities, but also would require 164 billion gallons
of water annually, an enormous amount in the driest region in the country.
In February 2009, Jon Jarvis, then the head of the Park Service’s Pacific West Region, and now the Park Service director, took the
unusual step of warning his Interior Department colleagues that a solar construction boom in the desert, which results in dozens of conventional wet-cooled solar plants, could tilt the already fierce competition for water in the Southwest the wrong way.
“In arid settings, the increased water demand from concentrating solar energy systems employing water-cooled technology could strain limited water resources already under development pressure from urbanization, irrigation expansion, commercial interests and mining,” Jarvis wrote in the internal memorandum.
Confrontation Unlike Any Other
In almost every way imaginable, Jarvis’ warning is emblematic of the critical choke points emerging in the United States as rising demand for new sources of energy confronts the nation’s diminishing supplies of fresh water. Four months ago, in Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue set out to better understand what was happening around the country as communities, businesses, and residents confronted the increasingly intense competition between water and energy. Our reporting from the coal fields of southern Virginia, the high plains of the Dakotas, California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s farm fields, Northern Alberta, Canada, and elsewhere identified urgent contests between
energy development and water supply that can be resolved. But taming the conflict between energy and water also poses extraordinarily difficult challenges to regional economies, governing practices,
technological development and the quality of natural resources.
Most importantly, though, Choke Point: U.S. raises significant concerns about the values and principles that form the basic foundation of national energy policy in the era of rapid population growth, rising
energy demand and climate change. The DOE has prepared a number of studies, accepted largely without question, that predict that as the nation’s population reaches more than 440 million in 2050, energy demand will increase by 40 percent. Federal authorities, along with technical specialists in private industry and academia, insist that such demand can be met by producing more energy sources from fossil fuels and nuclear power, and by developing cleaner energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels and wave energy, which also have the benefit of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide that are warming the climate.
Underlying the nation’s strategy is the principle that the nation can meet its rising energy demands by applying technology and characteristic American innovation to the job of generating more energy.
But in Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue found that without significant changes in approach, meeting the demand for 40 percent more energy by mid-century –if it’s even possible – will come at an
extraordinary price to the nation’s air, water, land and quality of life. Rising energy demand and diminishing fresh water reserves are two trends in dramatic collision across the country. Moreover, the speed and force of the collision is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress: California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West and the Southeast.
“What’s missing in our national energy discussion is efficiency and conservation,” said Sandra Postel, an author and director of the Global Water Policy Project. “You save energy and you save water. We need a coherent policy and practices to emerge, and they haven’t yet, that drives water conservation and energy conservation. Every gallon of gas you don’t putin a car saves 13 gallons of water. But we aren’t talking about that nearly enough right now.”
Water Supply Confronts Energy Demand
Indeed, Choke Point: U.S. found that while federal energy experts, and their colleagues in academia and industry pursue an energy development strategy strongly devoted to more production, they are not paying sufficient attention to addressing the water supply, the primary impediment.
Scientists define water consumption by two basic measurements. One is how much water is withdrawn from America’s rivers, lakes and aquifers for domestic, farm, business and industrial use, most of which is returned to those same sources. The second is how much water is actually consumed in products, by livestock, plants and people, or evaporates in industrial processes.
In both measurements of withdrawal and consumption, energy is at the top of the charts. The United States withdraws 410 billion gallons of water a day from its rivers, lakes, aquifers and the sea. About half is used to cool thermoelectric power plants, and most of that is used to cool coal-powered plants, according to the most recent assessment by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Similarly, the country consumes about 100 billion gallons of water a day. Nearly 85 percent is used for crop and livestock production. Of the 16.1 billion gallons that remain, half is devoted to producing
Federal and state regulators, and even coal industry executives grudgingy acknowledge the ropes of ecology, economy and efficiency that are tightening around the nation’s energy sector. Climate change is leading to decreased supplies of rain, snowmelt and fresh water. But as the contest between energy and water grows steadily more fierce, the United States seems intent on bypassing the conflict.
In one of the most startling findings of Choke Point: U.S., Circle of Blue reporters discovered that a far-reaching federal program of research and analysis, funded by Congress and designed to help the
nation anticipate and temper the mounting conflict between rising energy demand and diminishing supplies of fresh water, has been brought to a standstill by the DOE.
The research program, known as the National Energy-Water Roadmap and ordered up by Congress as part of the 2005 Energy Security Act, was meant to provide lawmakers and the executive branch two studies of the impending conflict between energy and water. The program also explains what to do about the collision. The first, completed by a team of federal scientists in December 2006 and made public a month later, described the serious consequences the nation is already encountering, as the United States encourages more energy production, which is the second largest water-using sector, but gives scant consideration to water supplies, which are in retreat in most regions of the country.
Meanwhile, the second and final report that Congress commissioned—a comprehensive research agenda to better understand the nation’s energy—water choke points and begin developing real world solutions – has been held out of public view for more than four years. The DOE declined repeated requests for interviews about the reasons for keeping the report from publication.
Choke Point: U.S. also found:
These findings represent a new way to look at the economically essential and ecologically damaging accord between energy and water. Choke Point: U.S. is among the first comprehensive assessments that bring that conflict into sharp national focus.
It is not just that energy production could not occur without using vast amounts of water. It’s also that it’s occurring in the era of climate change, population growth and steadily increasing demand for
energy. The result is that the competition for water at every stage of the mining, processing, production, shipping and use of energy is growing more fierce, more complex and much more difficult to resolve.
“As a nation we really are not willing to understand the issues around controlling energy supply so that it doesn’t lead to water conflict,” said Mike Hightower, an energy systems analyst at Sandia
National Laboratories in New Mexico and one of the nation’s top experts on the water-energy choke point. “The issues are interdependent. But not enough people are willing to connect the dots. And there are real issues at play. Will water scarcity limit natural gas production from the gas-bearing shales, for instance? Will water limit construction of new power plants? Will energy production be limited by the water supply?”
“Politicians don’t like to look at the big picture,” Hightower added. “They want to focus on one thing. And right now that is meeting the energy demand, and to some extent reducing greenhouse gases. But it has to be managed differently so we don’t damage our water resources.”
-- Keith Schneider
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