May 13, 2009

Water and Watts: A new issue brief on energy and water in the Southeast

The World Resources Institute, Southface and the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance recently released a new issue brief about water and energy in the Southeast. Their basic conclusion? Thermoelectric power plants are responsible for nearly two out of every three gallons of freshwater withdrawals in the Southeast. Much of that water returns to the water body it was removed from, but some of it is evaporated or otherwise consumed and not returned.

The average kilowatt-hour of electricity produced in the Southeast consumes nearly a gallon of water.

Click here to read the issue brief.

Southeast coal plants put pressure on water supply (Wednesday, May 13, 2009)
E&E Daily

Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter

The Southeast's reliance on coal-fired power plants is threatening the region's water supply, according to a new analysis that says energy efficiency could alleviate the growing pressure on lakes and rivers.

The region uses 40 billion gallons of water every day in the production of electricity. That amounts to two-thirds of all its water use -- more than any other region -- and nearly matches the nation's daily draw of freshwater for public consumption, according to a report released today by the World Resources Institute and two regional conservation groups.

"The Southeast faces immense challenges in meeting the water and energy needs of a growing population," says the report, noting that climate change will strain water resources as more people tap the dwindling reserve.

The region is a focus for advocates of renewable energy and efficiency initiatives, in part because those states have historically trailed other regions in adopting strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The economic signals there have been slower to push utilities and policymakers to adopt cost-saving -- and carbon-reducing -- policies. Several Southern states are some of the highest per capita energy users in the nation.

"There's no hiding the fact. The Southern states have been blessed, and cursed, with low energy costs," said Ben Taube, a contributor to the report and the executive director of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance. "We've got a lot of opportunity ahead of us, and we've got to find ways to make that happen."

Those cheap prices have traditionally led to a reliance on coal. But the pressures on water -- now and in the future -- are one more reason to impose energy-cutting efficiency programs and shift to renewable power production, the report says.

New efficiencies can reduce the amount of water used to cool equipment in the production of electricity in plants powered by coal, nuclear fuel and biomass. Also, conserving water can reduce the amount of electricity needed to treat and heat water. The report says the warm region is an ideal place for solar hot water systems, which can provide 40 to 80 percent of the hot water used in homes and businesses.

That could reduce electricity consumption -- and the water needed for that process.

Less energy = more water

The report says utilities and regulators need to consider the relationship between energy and water when planning new power plants.

"Most states take a silo approach to energy planning and a silo approach to water planning," said Dennis Creech, a contributor to the report and the executive director of Southface, a conservation group. "They don't look at the two."

The report will be delivered to businesses and policymakers. It recommends that legislators offer financial incentives, like tax credits, to encourage energy efficiency practices and the purchase of low-energy equipment.

"Steps taken to minimize energy demands will help relieve pressure to construct new power plants, thus avoiding the need to divert additional freshwater resources," the report says.

It also suggests that states require public buildings to be energy efficient, and that they launch aggressive education campaigns to teach the public about the connection between water and energy.

But those efforts might be a challenge. At least two new nuclear power plants have been proposed in the region. Nuclear plants use more water than other types of facilities.

And there's still a dependence on traditional energy, with some regional power companies asserting that the Southeast has fewer renewable energy sources -- like wind -- than other areas. Clean energy advocates strongly dispute that perception, saying the region could produce 25 percent of its power from renewable energy sources, like biomass, by 2025.

"One of the key things that came out of our report was the fact that the conventional means of producing electricity -- coal power plants, nuclear power plants -- can be very water-intensive," said Eliot Metzger of the World Resources Institute. "And the fact that the business-as-usual path was to build more of those plants, [which] was clearly not the sustainable path."

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