Access to fresh water is becoming a bigger issue as energy producers transition away from coal-fired power in favor of more natural gas and renewable energy, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report issued Tuesday.
The report underscores the need for a long-term vision to ensure there is enough water to go around in the future, especially in parched areas of the South and Southwest.
But even in the water-rich Great Lakes region, power-generating companies should consider future competition for water when deciding whether they will eventually replace coal-fired power plants with ones that burn natural gas.
Traditional power generation relies heavily on cooling water, whereas wind, solar, and other renewable forms of energy do not, according to the report’s authors, who advocated a mix.
“Power plants that need cooling water are going to be at risk in the long-term,” John Rogers, a co-author and senior energy analyst for the group, said.
FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County and DTE Electric Co.’s Fermi 2 nuclear plant in Monroe County both draw from Lake Erie.
But both have cooling towers that greatly minimize their intakes. Many nuclear plants do not.
Jennifer Young, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said in a prepared statement that the Akron-based utility has had no trouble with availability and temperature of cooling water “despite recent summers that have been warmer and drier than average.”
Eighty-five percent of FirstEnergy’s fossil and nuclear units will have water intakes reduced by the use of cooling towers once previously announced plant closings are completed, up from the current 77 percent, she said.
State and federal environmental regulators encourage utilities to install cooling towers whenever feasible. While the towers can cost more than $100 million, they reduce water intake by about 90 percent and have far less impact on fish than traditional once-through cooling, as used at FirstEnergy’s Bay Shore power plant.
Columbus-based American Municipal Power, which generates electricity for several northwest Ohio communities, had no reaction to the report, said Kent Carson, an AMP spokesman.
Energy production accounts for 40 percent of water use in the United States, more than twice the global average of 18 percent, according to another one of the report’s co-authors, Kristen Averyt, director of the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Western Water Assessment program.
The authors noted that historic changes are underway because of market forces driven by the falling price of natural gas, a global phenomenon that is largely the result of a technology improved in the United States over the last five years. Known as “fracking,” the technology allows companies to tap natural gas and oil trapped by shale bedrock once that rock is fractured.
That drilling technique alone, though, requires water. Energy producers also need to consider a bevy of climate-change regulations that could come following President Obama’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gases last month.
Even though natural gas is now plentiful and burns cleaner than coal, companies need to consider how heavily to invest in it because of its water requirements, the report’s authors said.
“Every decision we make about power generation has consequences for decades,” said Rob Jackson, chairman of the global environmental change program in Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and member of an advisory committee associated with the report.
Natural gas use is expanding, as coal and nuclear have declined.
Peter Frumhoff, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ science and policy director and project chairman, said long-term water planning can be better with the right mix of natural gas and renewables.
“We can cut annual water withdrawals with natural gas, but get more water savings with renewables,” he said.
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