US faces collision between energy demands and water scarcity, reports Circle of Blue


An emblem of the energy-water nexus: falling water levels driven by drought and overconsumption have reduced the Hoover Dam's capacity for electricity generation, threatening a major power supply in the Southwest. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

The U.S. must integrate water and energy planning as the nation heads into a collision between rising energy and water demands and increasing water scarcity, warns Circle of Blue Waternews, an international news network of journalists and scientists reporting on the global freshwater crisis. The “production first” principle of US energy policy has allowed energy experts and policymakers to skirt the issue of water supply, the primary impediment to increasing energy production. As projected by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the U.S. will need to increase electric generation capacity 40% by 2050, which will “come at an extraordinary price to the nation’s air, water, land and quality of life,” Circle of Blue reports in their series "Choke Point: U.S."Of the emerging alternative energy technologies, only two—wind energy and solar photovoltaics—consume less water than fossil fuel sources, said Circle of Blue senior editor Keith Schneider at a presentation in Washington, DC, on September 22.  Just one staggering example: generating a gallon of gas from oil takes one gallon; generating a gallon of fuel from corn takes 650 gallons of water.  The development of unconventional fossil fuels (i.e. the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract fuel from shale formations) similarly requires more water than traditional fuels, and carbon capture and storage technologies pushed for by the coal industry will increase water usage at coal-fired power plants 40-90%, Schneider said.

Schneider highlighted his recent report for Circle of Blue Waternews, alleging that the Department of Energy is withholding an “Energy-Water Roadmap” report that lays out an agenda for 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.”  The DOE was mandated by Congress to develop a research agenda addressing the nation’s energy-water choke points and working towards solutions.

According to one of the “Roadmap” report authors, the document has been through 22 re-writes, as reported by Circle of Blue. The Roadmap was originally to be released around September 2006. The Roadmap authors are unsure as to the reasons for the delay, but Circle of Blue notes that its conclusions are inconvenient for both political and industry interests, as all of the big energy production and large water use sectors are implicated.  Nearly 85% of the 100 billion gallons of water consumed daily in the U.S. go towards crop and livestock production, and "of the 16.1 billion gallons that remain, half is devoted to producing energy," Circle of Blue reported.  Agriculture and electric power generation are large, powerful interests with deep pockets and stalwart allies in Congress. In another example, the Obama administration has pushed both biofuels and carbon capture and storage without public discussion of the substantial water needs of those technologies.

Climate change was not an explicit focus of the presentation, but its impact on the water cycle will amplify competition over water and energy and is a key consideration in integrated planning.  The Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States report released last year by the US Global Change Research program addressed key climate impacts on the energy-water nexus, including:

Water Resources

  • Climate change has already altered, and will continue to alter the water cycle, affecting where, when, and how much water is available for all uses.
  • Floods and droughts are likely to become more common and more intense as regional and seasonal precipitation patterns change, and rainfall becomes more concentrated into heavy events (with longer, hotter dry periods in between).
  • Climate change will place additional burdens on already stressed water systems.

Energy Supply and Use

  • Energy production is likely to be constrained by rising temperatures and limited water supplies in many regions.
  • Climate change is likely to affect some renewable energy sources across the nation, such as hydropower production in regions subject to changing patterns of precipitation or snowmelt.

The 2007 IPCC Synthesis Report stated: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources…Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate through the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows [in some regions].”

As quoted in a 2008 Nature article, international water expert and co-founder of Circle of Blue Peter Gleick said:

"There are tradeoffs between energy and water…It may be...that an increase in water use for certain kinds of fuels is a good thing if you're reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on oil. Understanding the relative numbers in terms of water use and greenhouse gas emissions is part of the dynamic that all of us need to engage in. It's the first step, and I don't think that has happened."

Earlier CSW posts:

Peter Gleick on “New McCarthyism: Fear of science and the war on rationality” (September 8, 2009)

Western water shortages: “Clearly, we’re on a collision course between supply and demand.” (December 8, 2008)

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