Texas’ Evolving Energy Reality: Clean Energy Uses Less Water

wind water flickrIt’s been an interesting time for water in Texas. Beyond the incredibly wet and cool spring we’ve been having, Memorial Day saw the second year in a row of record-breaking floods.

And a few weeks ago, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) asked for comments on the draft 2017 State Water Plan. The TWDB is the state agency responsible for water planning, and every five years it produces a strategy that “addresses the needs of all water user groups in the state – municipal, irrigation, manufacturing, livestock, mining, and steam-electric power.”

In the five years since the last state water plan, Texas has gone from one extreme to the other in terms of water: from the throes of a devastating drought to historic flooding that resulted in some reservoirs being full for the first time in 15 years.

In this climate of feast or famine, we need to better understand our water supplies and conservation efforts, both of which have a strong tie to our energy choices. That’s why Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) weighed in on Texas’ draft water plan. Not only does the state significantly overestimate the amount of water needed to make electricity, but a more comprehensive view of energy in relation to water demand and supply would benefit the 2017 State Water Plan and future plans.

Cleaner energy means less water demand

The comments EDF submitted on the 2017 draft plan focus on the energy-water nexus – the idea that conventional energy resources (such as coal) require large amounts of water to produce electricity, and most of the water we use requires a considerable amount of energy to treat and transport it.

Texas has been on an impressive ramp-up of clean energy in the past few years, and all signs point to this trend continuing.

Texas produces its plan based on submissions from the 16 regional water planning groups – naturally, supply and demand varies by region. But one thing is clear from a statewide perspective: The water needs for the power sector are not accurate for planning purposes. (To the state’s credit, its water agency acknowledges this, but a comprehensive overhaul is needed to bring projections in line with reality.)

In the draft plan, the TWDB forecasts annual steam-electric water demand, or water needed for fossil fuel-fired power generation, will increase from 733,179 acre-feet in 2010 to 953,000 acre-feet in 2020 and 1,108,000 acre-feet in 2030. These numbers are based on Texas’ forecasted economic and population growth and the associated increase in electricity and water demand.

If Texas were operating with the same energy resources it deployed in 2010, those estimates would be accurate. However, they do not consider the state’s evolving energy reality: Texas has been on an impressive ramp-up of clean energy in the past few years, and all signs point to this trend continuing.

In fact, over the past two decades, coal-fueled generation has lost significant market share to natural gas and renewable energy resources. From 2002, the year Texas’ competitive electric retail market was implemented, to 2015, wind’s share grew from one percent to 12 percent in the Lone Star State. And last year alone, coal generation dropped from 36 percent to 28 percent.

TWDB water bigger

These changes matter because clean energy – like energy efficiency, solar PV, and wind – uses virtually no water to create electricity, versus thirsty coal and natural gas. In other words, the water intensity of the state’s generation mix is decreasing. Moreover, the transition to cleaner, less water-intensive electricity is almost entirely due to market forces, including the decreasing economic viability of coal and lower prices of solar and natural gas, coupled with targeted standards that encourage increased energy efficiency.

According to EDF’s analysis, based on energy data from Texas’ main grid operator, the state water agency’s forecast for Texas’ power-related water needs in 2030 exceeds the future reality by nearly 40 percent. That is a massive amount of water that could be budgeted for our homes, agriculture, and businesses. The dramatic overestimation of the power sector’s future water needs means we do not have a comprehensive, clear picture of the state’s water demands.

Additional energy-water nexus considerations

Beyond projecting the power sector’s water needs, additional energy-water nexus issues must be part of our statewide water planning. For example, 2.7 percent of the 2017 plan’s recommended water strategies include groundwater and seawater desalination, both of which are highly energy-intensive. In fact, energy can account for nearly half the costs in seawater desalination. In considering strategies such as these, the energy, and related water intensity, of the strategy should be evaluated. Desalination requires copious amounts of energy, so if traditional fossil fuels are powering the desalination facilities, it is essentially using water to make water.

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Further, a more comprehensive approach toward the energy-water nexus in the State Water Plan could enable both energy and water savings statewide. For example, the California Energy Commission found that as much energy could be saved through water conservation as through the investor-owned electric utility efficiency programs, but at half the cost. Although we do not have similar data for Texas yet, we can assume that better coordination between the two sectors could improve direct water conservation and indirect water savings through energy efficiency.

TWDB is a water agency, and power generation is just one of many sectors that have to be considered when making forecasts for future water demands and availability. Further, TWDB is actively making an effort to improve steam-electric power generation forecasting, which hopefully will take the state’s transition to clean energy into account. Our official projections should use the best available data and methods to ensure wild swings in weather don’t translate to wild swings in water supplies. Incorporating a more holistic energy-water lens into state planning can help guarantee reliable, plentiful water for our communities and businesses for years to come.

Photo source: Flickr/BlueRidgeKitties

This post originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

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