Authors of a new report say the nation's water supply that helps to produce electricity will not be able to keep up with future U.S. energy demands if population and climate change trends continue at their current pace.
About 97 percent of the nation's electricity currently comes from thermoelectric or hydroelectric generators, which rely on a massive amount of water to produce electricity, according to the report issued Thursday by the Massachusetts-based Civil Society Institute (CSI), a non-profit think tank. The report was prepared by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., a consulting group focused on energy, environmental and economic topics.
Every day, coal-fired power plants across the country withdraw a collective 85 billion gallons of water, and nuclear plants pull out 45 billion gallons, the report showed. Natural gas plants also suck up 7 billion gallons of water daily.
On top of that, large quantities of H2O are needed on a daily basis for coal mining and the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process for natural gas.
The future use of thermoelectric power plants is expected to surge in order to stay in line with the electricity demands of a growing U.S. population on track to increase by another 100 million people by 2060, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The nation's available water supply, which is already shrinking in areas of the country, simply can't handle those increased electricity needs, the report's authors noted.
Terri Treacy, conservation field representative with the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, said the report raised many of the same concerns that Illinois environmentalists have about the energy industry's impact on fresh water in the state.
For example, each coal mine in Illinois with a coal-cleaning processing facility uses anywhere from 500,000 gallons to nearly two million gallons of fresh water a day, she said.
"That water is permanently polluted from that cleaning process," she stressed.
Climate change, water shortages and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are also projected to have a major impact on water-intensive energy generation in the future.
"Failure to address these constraints now is bound to lead to further intersectoral conflicts and forced plant shutdowns that will jeopardize electricity production and constrain economic growth in the future," the report reads.
The CCS process, which may become more popular to help curb CO2 emission from large industrial sources, boosts water consumption rates for existing coal plants by 83 percent and natural gas plants by 91 percent, according to the report. As such, plants with CSS technologies may have a hard time operating during droughts and heat waves, as well as in places where available water is already scarce.
Climate change is also expected to take a toll on the country's water resources by altering where and how precipitation will occur. Rising temperatures that come with climate change also mean more running air conditioners. The increased energy use will cause power plants to run less efficiently and require more water for cooling.
Overall, continuing to rely on water-thirsty energy production "puts consumers and regional economies at risk of interruptions in electricity supply or on the hook for costly infrastructure investments," CSI's Senior Energy Analyst Grant Smith said in a statement. "To ensure a reliable, cost-effective supply of energy, these water-related risks must be fully accounted for in energy planning and regulation. Once the environmental costs of conventional fuels are recognized, it becomes clear that energy efficiency and renewable energy are bargains by comparison."
Emily Rosenwasser, a spokeswoman with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, stressed one of the report's takeaways: there is no safe way to burn coal.
"Water safety and thermal pollution issues that occur when coal plants are sucking up water in drought-stricken regions highlight our need to move beyond coal and invest in clean energy that doesn't pollute our water and our air," she added.
Image: AP Photo/David Duprey, File