Fossil Fuel, Nuclear Impact On Water

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By Will Nissen

This post originally appeared on August 7th on the MN 2020 blog and is reposted with permission. MN2020 is a nonpartisan, progressive think tank focusing on the issues that really matter: education, health care, transportation and economic development.

The U.S. is in the midst of the worst drought in 60 years. This is having significant impacts on corn, soybean and ethanol supplies and prices, and scorching pastures and grasslands that ranchers rely on to feed their cattle. Congress recently recessed for their summer break without passing any legislative aid to afflicted farmers and ranchers.

To make matters worse, farmers and ranchers face fierce competition for precious water supplies from one of the country’s largest freshwater users: the energy sector.

Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants generally need large amounts of water to drive turbines and cool power plant parts. One report, released earlier this year by the River Network, a water conservation group, states that coal, nuclear and natural gas-based electricity generation use over 16,000, 14,000 and 6,600 gallons of water per MWh produced, respectively, on average in the U.S. The average American household uses almost 1 MWh of electricity every month. Some of this water is reused, some is consumed and not returned to the natural water source.

In states dealing with the fracking boom, farmers also have to compete with drilling companies for precious water supplies. Earlier this year in Colorado, where over 73% of the state reported extreme drought conditions as of July 31, 2012, farmers who were already anticipating a dry season lost the bidding war on unallocated water supplies (ie, supplies not going to cities and counties) to companies that provide water for fracking activities. Farmers in the state had previously faced little to no competition for access to unallocated water supplies.

Not only does a water-intensive energy generation portfolio pose threats for farmers, it also carries risks for electricity consumers and the generation infrastructure itself. If water is in short supply, and especially water at cool enough temperatures, power plants are forced to pull back generation levels, risking instability during summer hours when demand can be highest. In addition, nuclear power plant safety relies heavily on cool water supplies.

I have already written about the positives of expanding energy generation with renewable sources, and this highlights yet another reason. In the River Network report mentioned above, wind and photovoltaic solar-based electricity use just over 60 and 230 gallons per MWh produced in the U.S., respectively. That’s a fraction of the water-use footprint that coal, nuclear and natural gas power carry.

As our population and water demands grow, renewable energy sources like wind and solar offer greater long-term stability than fossil fuel and nuclear sources when it comes to managing our precious water supplies.


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