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U.S. Energy Policy's Hidden Water Costs

Huge demands on increasingly scarce water are a major hidden cost of a “business as usual” approach to American electricity generation th...

|Sep 19|magazine22 min read



Huge demands on increasingly scarce water are a major hidden cost of a “business as usual” approach to American electricity generation that needs to be more fully understood by policymakers and the public, according to a new Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. report prepared for the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (CSI) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The new analysis, “The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Comparing the Hidden Costs of Power Generation Fuels,” is available online at http://www.CivilSocietyInstitute.org. Six fuels used to generate electricity --- biomass, coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar (photovoltaic and concentrating solar power), and wind (both onshore and offshore) – are analyzed in the following categories: water impacts, climate change impacts, air pollution impacts, planning and cost risk, subsidies and  tax incentives, land impacts, and other impacts.


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Examples of the water-related findings in the report include the following:

* Nuclear power has critical cooling requirements that require huge amounts of water. Roughly 62 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have closed-loop cooling systems. Reactors with closed-loop systems withdraw between 700-1,100 gallons of water per megawatt hour (MWh) and lose most of that water to evaporation. Water withdrawals are even higher at open-loop cooled nuclear plants, which need between 25,000-60,000 gallons per MWh. Most of the water is returned, but at a higher temperature and lower quality.

* In addition to fouling streams and drinking water through mining and coal-ash dump sites, coal-fired power relies heavily on closed-loop cooling systems which withdraw between 500 and 600 gallons of water per MWh and lose most of this via evaporation. Withdrawals for open-looped cooled coal-fired power plants are between 20,000-50,000 gallons per MWh. Most of the water is returned, but at a higher temperature and lower quality.

* Under a so-called “Clean Energy Standard,” biomass would become a much larger source of U.S. electricity generation; however, biomass also requires vast amounts of water. The report notes that a typical 50 megawatt (MW) biomass plant could withdraw roughly 242 million gallons of water per year and lose most of this. Adding 10 of these plants in a region would use 2.42 billion gallons of water per year. For dedicated energy crops, water use for irrigation can be considerable. One study estimates water use for most crops between 40,000 and 100,000 gallons per MWh, with some crops exceeding this range.

* In 2010, EPA estimated that fracking shale wells can use anywhere from two to 10 million gallons of water per well. The water is often extracted from on-site surface or groundwater supplies. Such huge water withdrawals raise serious concerns about the impacts on ecosystems and drinking water supplies, especially in areas under drought conditions, areas with low seasonal flow, locations with already stressed water supplies, or locations with waters that have sensitive aquatic communities.

* By contrast, wind and solar photovoltaic power requires little water in the electricity generation process. Concentrating solar power requires water for cooling purposes, but new technologies are placing greater emphasis on dry cooling. Solar power plants with dry cooling use only around 80 gallons per MWh – about a tenth of the low-end estimate for nuclear power and one-sixth of the low end estimate for coal-fired power generation.

Grant Smith, senior energy analyst, Civil Society Institute, said: “The government and energy industries are literally flying blind as they plan for continued reliance on coal, natural gas, nuclear power and industrial biomass to meet our energy needs. Each of these is water intensive and leads to pollution of water, which is increasingly scarce and in competition for other uses such as agriculture and other commercial uses. The drought intensifies the urgency and the imperative that political leaders in both parties hit the pause button on the headlong rush to support nuclear power and fossil fuel use.”

Seth Sheldon PhD, CSI lead water/energy analyst, added: “In 2005 the Congress mandated a federal water/energy roadmap. Nearly eight years later, that roadmap has not been produced and either through bureaucratic inertia or fear of hard political questions, the questions are not even being asked, much less their solutions explored. At a time of significant water scarcity and increasing threats to water quality, we can ill afford to ignore this central question about the future of our energy choices.”

Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel, Environmental Working Group, said: “The rush to drill for shale gas is one of the best recent examples of how the costs of water pollution are ignored in the pursuit of supposedly cheap energy. When New York regulators estimate a price tag of $8-10 billion to build a water treatment plant for New York City if shale gas drilling contaminates its upstate water supply, it raises serious questions about whether shale gas really is so cheap and why water costs aren’t always considered from the start.”

Geoff Keith, senior associate, Synapse Energy Economics Inc., said:  “Too often left out of the equation are a number of important ‘hidden’ costs, also called ‘indirect’ or ‘externalized’ costs, associated with each generation technology. These include costs to society such as depletion of water and other resources, air and water pollution, detrimental impacts on human health and the environment, and contributions to global climate change. While direct costs (the monetary cost to build and operate a generating plant) are important to consumers, so too are these indirect costs, whether or not they can be easily expressed in monetary terms.”

Other water-related data highlighted in the report includes the following:

* The full picture for nuclear power water use may be even more dramatic. Estimates of lifecycle water use for three European reactors range from 2,600 to 6,900 gallons per MWh, not including cooling water use. (This compares with a lifecycle analysis of a parabolic trough solar thermal power plant at 1,240 with wet cooling and just 290 gallons per MWH for dry cooling.)  In addition, nuclear wastewater production ranges from 6.3 to 7.4 gallons per MWh.

* Coalbed methane recovery of natural gas depletes ground water: one estimate puts total groundwater removed between 1997 and 2006 at an astounding 172 billion gallons.

* Estimates of the lifecycle water withdrawals from wind projects, including both onshore and offshore projects, range from just 55 to 85 gallons per MWh.


Based in Newton, MA, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (http://www.CivilSocietyInstitute.org) is a think tank that serves as a catalyst for change by creating problem-solving interactions among people, and between communities, government and business that can help to improve society. Since 2003, CSI has conducted more than 25 major national and state-level surveys and reports on energy and auto issues, including vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, consumer demand for hybrids/other highly-fuel efficient vehicles, global warming and renewable energy. In addition to being a co-convener of TheCLEAN.org (http://www.TheClean.org), the Civil Society Institute also is the parent organization of the Hybrid Owners of America (http://www.HybridOwnersofAmerica.org).

EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. http://www.ewg.org.

Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. (http://www.synapse-energy.com/) provides research, testimony, reports and regulatory support on energy, economic, and environmental topics. Synapse has a professional staff of 22 with more than 300 years of combined experience in the electricity and natural gas industries. Synapse assesses the implications of electricity and natural gas industry planning, regulation and restructuring. Their work covers various interrelated issues such as transmission planning, service reliability, siting, fuel diversity, resource planning, financial and economic risks, renewable energy potential and renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency, electricity modeling, portfolio management, customer service and more. Synapse works for a wide range of clients throughout the United States, including attorneys general, offices of consumer advocates, public utility commissions, a variety of environmental groups, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,

Department of Energy, Department of Justice, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and others.