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Will (a lack of) Water Threaten U.S. Energy Production?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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One-fifth of the continental United States is currently under “extreme or exceptional” drought conditions. Crops across the country have reached a point of no return, withering in the field and leaving no hope for this growing season. And, as water becomes increasingly scarce, the nation’s energy supplies could also be threatened.

According to Dr. Michael Webber* at The University of Texas at Austin:

“Our energy system depends on water. About half of the nation’s water withdrawals every day are just for cooling power plants. In addition, the oil and gas industries use tens of millions of gallons a day, injecting water into aging oil fields to improve production, and to free natural gas in shale formations through hydraulic fracturing… All told, we withdraw more water for the energy sector than for agriculture. Unfortunately, this relationship means that water problems become energy problems that are serious enough to warrant high-level attention.”

In his recent NY Times Op-ed, Dr. Webber – a recognized expert on the energy-water nexus – explores how the current widespread drought could threaten U.S. energy supplies. He discusses how cities in Texas are already forbidding the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing (fracking). And how, in the Midwest, power plants are going head-to-head with farmers for limited water supplies.

In response to Dr. Webber’s concerns, one could quickly propose potential technical solutions to these water-for-energy problems. Sea water, for instance, could be used to cool power plants either directly (salt-water cooling systems) or indirectly (through desalination plants). But, these potential solutions come with tradeoffs in energy and also face geographical constraints that will not be easily or cheaply overcome.

So, where do we go from here?

According to Dr. Webber, the nation should look toward:

  1. Data – the government should “collect, maintain and make available accurate, updated and comprehensive water data, possibly through the United States Geological Survey and the E.I.A.
  2. Research – “…the government should also invest in water-related research and development (spending has been pitifully low for decades) to seek better air-cooling systems for power plants, waterless techniques for hydraulic fracturing, and biofuels that do not require freshwater irrigation.
  3. Operation-ready solutions – for example, using reclaimed water for irrigation and cooling requirements at power plants and industrial complexes. Not to mention, expanding the use of dry cooling technologies and encouraging conservation and efficiency throughout the nation’s energy systems.

Further, greenhouse gas emissions standards might help. Today’s coal-fired power plants use much more water than combined cycle natural gas power plants, which use more water than many renewables including wind and solar power. Limiting greenhouse gas emissions – and, in turn, reducing the use of coal to produce electricity – could result in significant reductions in water use.

But, in the meantime, the fate of these two critical resources – energy and water – remain intertwined.

*Michael E. Webber is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, Austin. He also as a primary advisor for Plugged In authors Melissa C. Lott and David Wogan during their tenure as graduate students at UT Austin from 2007-2010.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. funglestrumpet 6:27 am 07/29/2012

    It seems to me that the whole planet, not just the U.S.A., needs to switch to liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR). They have so many advantages over other methods of power generation, including uranium fueled reactors, that it is surely a no-brainer decision.

    Just some of the advantages: they do not use water for cooling purposes, so proxity to a river or coast is not a requirement. This means that they can be sited anywhere near centres of demand. This in turn means that they do not require an extensive power grid. That they do not use water as a coolant also means that they are safe; if they lose their power, they automatically shut themselves down with no human input necessary and there is no risk of hydrogen explosions, as happened at Fukushima. They use a fuel that is reactor ready, i.e. unlike uranium, which has to be enriched. This fuel is so plentiful it will not run out, period. With no water coolant system, it does not need a massive containment vessel to cope with a failure of that system. This means they can be made very small, so it is possible they could be made in a factory and transported to their chosen location. Enough for now.

    For anyone who would like a primer, I recommend a YouTube video ‘LFTR in 5 Minutes – THORIUM REMIX 2011.’ Despite the title, the “5 Minutes” only sets up the full-length video. Alternatively, Kirk Sorensen, who is an expert in the field, gave a very good TED talk on the subject.

    This technology was first developed, and proven, during the cold war. It was only dropped because it could not be used to make nuclear weapons. (In those days climate change was not on the radar.) What we now need to do is productionize it. If we were to do that, there is a chance that we would be able to keep the lights on and have reasonably full larders, but only a chance, such is the state of efforts to halt climate change.

    Anyone who has studied the topic knows that ‘business as usual’ is not an option if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. At least LFTR reactors would facilitate a change that the public could except. All we need to do in that regard is to shut the greens up. At present they wet their knickers in anger and antagonism at any mention of the word ‘nuclear’, which is no help to anyone.

    Link to this

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