Water, Energy and Climate Change: The Bottom Line – An Interview with Doug Kenney
Earlier this summer, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a comprehensive study of the U.S. water/energy/climate nexus, and two Carpe Diem West leaders were struck by the power of its findings.
Under some of the scenarios laid out in the report, water withdrawals for power generation would drop by 97 percent from current levels by 2050, with most of that drop within the next 20 years as outdated, water-intensive technology is replaced with renewables. That would cut carbon emissions 90 percent from current levels, mostly in the near term. An expansion of renewable energy generation would also be a much cheaper path for consumers.
Connecting the dots between energy, water use and planning, and climate change, has long been of interest to our network. Doug Kenney (a research collaborator on the study) shares his take on the importance of the study, and its relevance to the water sector.
You pick and choose research opportunities every day, what inspired you to work on this study?
The study was motivated by the observation that many of the nation’s power plants are very vulnerable to water shortages and, in some cases, to problems stemming from rising water temperatures. In recent years, many plants that require cooling water have had to temporarily shut down due to a lack of water. Likewise, in regions heavily dependent upon hydroelectric power generation—including much of the western US—reduced streamflows translate directly to reduced energy production, or to a reduced reliability of generation. Part of this is just a function of recent drought conditions, but part of this problem is also reflective of growing competition for water everywhere, and to the fact that the temperature of many waterways has been creeping upward in lockstep with rising air temperatures. The bottom line is that we’ve designed an electricity system in this country that places the water and energy sectors on a collision course, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The electricity system in the United States is undergoing a rapid transformation, as the role of coal is being sharply reduced, natural gas is booming, new renewable energy technologies are coming online, and so on. Each of these fuels and technologies has different water needs. As government and industry leaders make decisions about which energy generating options to pursue, water needs to be a central part of the discussion. Historically, we haven’t done that, and we are paying the price for that now.
Why should the water community care about which fuels and technologies are used to generate electricity in the future?
There’s two reasons. First, if a current or proposed powerplant is threatened by a water shortage, then the utility will likely do whatever it takes to secure additional water supplies. That puts the electric utility in competition with all other water-using sectors, and in government and market settings, electricity generation is a tough competitor. Water currently used for agriculture and the environment is most vulnerable. And second, if the utility is incapable of securing sufficient water supplies and electricity generation is reduced, then that impacts all energy-intensive sectors. Well, moving and treating water is extremely energy-intensive, especially in places like southern California and central Arizona. In those places, competition between water and energy creates a huge problem, as you need ample and reliable supplies of both water and energy to sustain economies, communities, and environments.
You’ve characterized the report as “optimistic” and as one that illuminates a “great opportunity”? Why is that?
While it’s true that some electricity generation choices, including many choices made decades ago, pose a threat to water users, the really stunning finding from the study is that by choosing water-smart fuels and technologies going forward, the energy sector can dramatically scale back its water needs and can ease water stress. You need to remember, more water in the US is diverted into power plants than onto fields. Many of those power plants are old, coal-fired units, and they are being retired or retooled at a record pace. Likewise, nuclear power plants are becoming increasingly rare. Well, those are among the most water-hungry technologies for electricity generation. Modern, natural gas power plants use significant amounts of water, but less than the facilities they typically replace, while windmills and PV systems use virtually no water. Thus, the pathway we are already on—termed business as usual in the report—results in at least an 80% reduction in water withdrawals and 40% in water consumption by 2050. That’s encouraging. But if we pursue an electricity future with a strong emphasis on renewable energy and energy efficiency, then reductions in water withdrawals and consumption drop by 97% and 85%, respectively. Additionally, the renewables and efficiency pathway is the nation’s best option for significantly reducing its carbon footprint, and results in customer electricity bills that are 30% lower than business as usual. You’d be hard pressed to find any study of water, climate or energy that uncovers such an exciting opportunity.
So how can the lessons of this report be translated into improved public policy?
The key is to ensure that water considerations are part of every discussion about energy choices and climate policy, whether that occurs at a national or state level, or in a local proceeding regarding a particular project. Thus, legislatures and PUCs are obvious forums. Policies that incentivize renewable energy and efficiency improvements, and that discourage carbon emissions, will in most cases be water-friendly. That’s a fortunate coincidence, and means that water considerations can be used to strengthen arguments for choices that already make good sense on other criteria.
Doug Kenney is Director of Western Water Policy Program at University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment.