Over the past several weeks, I've written a lot about the intimate and inextricable connection between energy and water. The energy-water nexus involves a number of technologies, environmental factors and stakeholders. Thus, it’s no surprise that water and energy’s fundamental connection has eluded policymakers for so long. With this post, I review the lessons discussed so far, so that policymakers can understand the key issues surrounding the energy-water nexus and what’s at stake if we fail to act now.
The Bottom Line
Conventional electricity sources, like coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, require an abundance of water — about 190 billion gallons per day. Because the majority of our electricity comes from these sources, high energy use strains the water system and contributes to Texas’ prolonged drought. Coincidentally, extreme drought could force power plants to shut down.
Climate change is having a profound effect on our weather patterns, making extreme heat and drought more common in Texas and throughout the Southwest. If we don’t set the energy-water system on a sustainable course, we risk a compounded problem.
Source: Winning Communities
Around 20% of the US population lives in an area that is classified as “rural.” The US Census Bureau defines an urban area as a territory with a population of at least 50,000, or a cluster of 2,500 to 50,000 people. Rural is then defined as anything outside of that definition. Rural areas face particular challenges when it comes to energy and water use. For example, utilities are met with higher costs and often find it harder to implement new clean technologies to modernize their energy infrastructure because of the great distances between customers and an irregular patchwork of reliable resources. Besides, many system planners and thought leaders for innovative energy technologies live in urban or suburban areas and may find it harder to relate to the specific challenges of rural settings.
It’s likely that climate change will impact rural communities in different ways than it will urban areas, due to a number of factors including the types of common occupations, poverty levels and demography. Of particular concern is the “climate gap”, which refers to the lower economic and physical adaptability of rural communities. It will vary based on region, but research indicates that rural communities in the Southeast and Southwest could face particularly dire circumstances due to changes in electricity prices and water scarcity.
Last week, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force released a Rebuilding Strategy, which aims to rebuild communities affected by Hurricane Sandy in ways that are “better able to withstand future storms and other risks posed by climate change.” From an energy perspective, the main goal of these recommendations is to make the electrical grid smarter and more flexible. This effort would minimize power outages and fuel shortages in the event of similar emergency situations in the future.
The Task Force is led by President Obama and chaired by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan. The recommendations put forth in the report were developed with Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, and a number of federal agencies and officials from across New York and New Jersey, representing an unusual opportunity to make changes that will help communities weather future crises.
This key idea – smarter, flexible energy – is central to resilience, safety and quick recovery in a storm, as well as reducing the harmful pollution linked to climate change in the first place. This has been a key theme of EDF’s efforts to help the Northeast region respond to Sandy.
When the power grid went down on most of New York City following Hurricane Sandy, a number of buildings were able to keep their lights on thanks to existing microgrids and on-site, renewable energy sources. The Task Force report lays out a path forward for taking these isolated success stories to scale and making these clean technologies available to everyone.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a number of posts to help shed light on the fundamental connection between energy and water. Because many of our energy sources gulp down huge volumes of water, it’s imperative that we break down the long-standing division between energy and water planning — especially in drought-prone states like Texas. I’d like to take a step back and look at how Texas’ neighbors are addressing energy and water co-management. While Texas may be an extreme example, looking toward its immediate neighbors could provide ideas and best practices to improve the state’s situation.
A number of western states are facing many of the same challenges as Texas. Electricity production is a major drain on the region’s water supply. A study co-authored by Western Resource Advocates and EDF showed that thermoelectric power plants, such as coal, natural gas and nuclear, in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah consumed an estimated 292 million gallons of water each day in 2005 — roughly equal to the amount of water consumed by Denver, Phoenix and Albuquerque combined (and we’re talking water consumption, not just withdrawals). Like Texas, the western states face a future of prolonged drought. Scientific models predict climate change will increase drought throughout the Southwest, placing greater stress on the region’s delicate water supply.
Additionally, electricity production, numerous thirsty cities and widespread agricultural activity all strain the water system, too. Because so many flock to western states for fishing, kayaking, rafting and other recreational water activities, setting the region’s water system on a sustainable path is a critical economic issue. The exceptional challenges facing western states have already prompted some states to consider the energy-water nexus when planning to meet future water and electricity needs. Read More
As we’ve highlighted in previous posts, water and energy regulators often make decisions in silos, despite the inherent connection between these two sectors. Texas is no exception.
Two very important and intertwined events are happening in Texas right now.
First, the state is in the midst of an energy crunch brought on by a dysfunctional electricity market, drought, population growth and extreme summer temperatures. An energy crunch signifies that the available supply of power barely exceeds the projected need (or demand) for electricity. Texas’ insufficient power supply makes the whole electricity system vulnerable to extreme weather events. An especially hot day (with thousands of air conditioning units running at full blast) could push the state over the edge and force the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the institution charged with ensuring grid reliability, to issue rolling blackouts.
Second, Texas is still in the midst of a severe, multi-year drought, forcing state agencies to impose strict water restrictions throughout the state. The drought has already had a devastating impact on surface water and many communities are facing critical water shortages.
Although Texas has always had to deal with extreme weather events, we can anticipate even more intense weather as climate change advances. The new climate ‘normal’ makes extreme heat waves, like the historic 2011 Texas summer, 20 times more likely to occur. These extreme weather events heighten the urgency of the energy-water nexus. Read More
Also posted in clean energy, Demand Response, Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, Texas, Texas Energy Crunch, Utilities, Water
Tagged Demand Response, energy, Energy Efficiency, Energy-Water Nexus, Texas Energy Crunch, Water
Concerns about the methane problem associated with the U.S. natural gas boom are mounting with each study released. This week scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado (UC) at Boulder published a new paper on methane leakage in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. It reports an alarmingly high level of methane emissions in the Uintah Basin of Utah — 6.2 to 11.7 percent of total production for an area about 1,000 square miles. Findings are based on readings from airplane flights that measured methane in the air on a single day and estimated the proportion of those emissions that came from the oil and gas infrastructure —production, gathering systems, processing and transmission of the gas out of the region. The authors calculated the uncertainty of their measurements, finding a 68 percent chance the leak rate is between 6.2 and 11.7 percent, and a 95 percent chance it is between 3.5 and 14 percent.
This follows two other regional studies conducted by scientists at the same organizations. One released last May in the Journal of Geophysical Research reported a 17 percent methane leak rate for the Los Angeles Basin, which has received quite a bit of attention although, as I’ll explain below, the figure can be misleading. The second study, conducted over the Denver-Julesburg Basin in 2008, found 4 percent of the methane produced at an oil and gas field near Denver at that time was escaping into the atmosphere. Taken together, these studies are troubling. They should be regarded as alarm bells ringing in our ears. Action by policymakers and industry is needed now.
Any amount of methane lost from the natural gas supply chain should be eliminated whenever possible. That’s because methane retains heat much more effectively relative to carbon dioxide: Over the first 20 years, an ounce of methane traps in heat 72 times more efficiently. Even small amounts vented or released as “fugitives” – unintentional methane leaked as gas moves from the field to your doorstep – can reduce or eliminate the climate advantage we think we’re getting when we substitute natural gas for coal or oil.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley continues to lead the way on climate and clean energy policy. On Thursday, he unveiled Maryland’s new Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (GGRA) Plan. Gov. O’Malley’s plan raises the targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency and peak energy demand reduction, while re-affirming Maryland’s membership in the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The plan adds new climate programs relating to transportation and forestry, and a new aspirational goal to make Maryland a zero-waste state.
Maryland is particularly vulnerable to climate change with 3,000 miles of shoreline along scenic Chesapeake Bay. The state ranks 42nd in total area, but 10th in coastline area. Gov. O’Malley has addressed climate change since his early days in office. In 2007, he established the Maryland Climate Change Commission to address the causes and effects of climate change in Maryland and develop an action plan. The Maryland Climate Action Plan (Plan) was issued in August 2008, and Gov. O’Malley has labored diligently to implement the plan since that time.
The new Plan calls for increasing the renewable energy portfolio standard from 20% to 25% by 2022, as well as the energy efficiency and peak demand reduction targets (with the new, higher targets to be announced at a later date). Like a true leader, Gov. O’Malley aims high and is unafraid to be different. His call to raise these clean energy standards comes at a time when some states have been unsuccessfully pressured by the fossil-fuel industry to consider lowering their clean energy standards.
No one likes being told “I told you so.” But since DOE released its report last week, I’ve been tempted.
The report warns that the existing American energy infrastructure is highly vulnerable to climate change. That increasing temperatures will stress the U.S. water system and enhance the likelihood of drought. That because conventional power plants require huge volumes of water to operate, lower water availability will mean less reliable power. And that the changing climate will prompt more extreme and frequent storms, increasing energy demand due to extreme temperature changes and threatening our aging and already stressed electric grid with potential blackouts.
In essence, the affirms the many the calls-to-action that EDF and many other groups have been leading for years and the lessons we learned from Superstorm Sandy made painfully real and salient: Our existing energy technologies and policies were designed for a 20th century climate. To weather the extremes of a 21st century climate, we need to a 21st century energy system – one that promotes energy efficiency, enables widespread adoption of homegrown, renewable sources of power and allows people to control their own energy use and reduce their electricity costs.
I have been very encouraged by President Obama’s recent movement on climate change, and the DOE report provides research backing the urgency of his Climate Action Plan. Hopefully, this recent movement will translate into real national momentum, as our national approach to energy truly needs an overhaul. Read More
Back in March, I wrote about the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC’s) state-by-state attack on renewable energy. The attacks contribute to ALEC’s growing reputation as a “shadowy right-wing front group,” funded by the likes of Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world. ALEC’s legislative efforts were aided by the Heartland Institute, a “free-market think tank” and notorious climate change denier.
ALEC has a clear motive: to serve the interests of dirty fossil fuel power plants and block progress towards greater use of clean, homegrown energy.
I’m happy to announce that ALEC and the Heartland Institute’s efforts to roll-back individual state’s renewable energy goals decisively failed in legislatures spanning from West Virginia to Kansas. In total, 26 bills designed to remove renewable energy standards (RPS) for eight states were denied, according to a report from Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy.
Now, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin will continue on the path towards a clean energy future. Even better, some states increased their energy guidelines, namely Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and Minnesota.
This news comes as a resounding victory for the climate, consumers, and Americans who care to see the U.S. progress into the global $ 2 billion clean energy economy. Read More
When I tell people that the best way to conserve energy is to conserve water, I am often faced with a confused response. I’m not surprised really. Energy and water policies are rarely discussed in the same forum. For a long time, we’ve overlooked the inextricable relationship between water and energy use. Coal, nuclear and natural gas plants use enormous amounts of water for cooling purposes. In 2005, 41% of all freshwater withdrawals in the nation was used in the thermoelectric power industry for cooling.
Connection between energy and water
The longstanding division between energy and water considerations is particularly evident in the case of energy and water management. These resources are fundamentally intertwined: Energy is used to secure, deliver, treat and distribute water, while water is used (and often degraded) to develop, process and deliver energy. Despite the inherent connection between the two sectors, energy and water planners routinely make decisions that impact one another without adequately understanding the scientific or policy complexities of the other sector. This miscommunication often hides joint opportunities for conservation to the detriment of budgets, efficiency, the environment and public health, and inhibits both sectors from fully accounting for the financial, environmental or social effects they have on each other.
This lack of collaboration between energy and water planners is especially dire considering Texas is in midst of an energy shortage that is exacerbated by the multi-year drought. Without adequate planning, we could someday have to choose between keeping our lights on and turning on the faucet. Read More