Birmingham, Ala. (July 16, 2013) – Decision makers in Alabama stand at a critical moment when they can dramatically lower the power industry’s draw on the state’s strained water supply by replacing its aging power plants with water-smart energy options like renewables and efficiency, according to a study released today. Continuing down the same path, the study warns, will place a heavy burden on already stressed water resources.
The new report, Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World, produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3), found the choices the industry makes now will decide how much it will tax the nation’s threatened water supplies and drive climate change through power generation’s carbon emissions in the decades to come. Authors examined various pathways by which the power industry could choose to generate electricity over the coming decades and what the subsequent effects are on watersheds – both in terms of water quality and quantity.
Power generation accounts for 86 percent of Alabama’s freshwater withdrawals and more than 40 percent of the nation’s withdrawals. As the South’s population grows, demand for electricity increases and the effects of climate change mount, these factors combined will contribute to greater strain on our limited water supplies. The competing demands for energy and water are colliding, putting both at risk.
Despite recent shifts in energy generation, ongoing water requirements could still adversely affect water-strained areas, and do little to reduce power generation-related carbon emissions. In the Southeast, the study focused on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) water basins, which are already significantly stressed and are lined with multiple water-thirsty coal and nuclear facilities.
“Our electricity system clearly isn’t able to effectively meet our needs as we battle climate change and face a future of expanding electricity demand and increasing water strain,” said John Rogers, co-manager of EW3 and senior energy analyst with UCS’s Climate and Energy Program. “As old plants are retired or retrofitted and new plants are built, we’ve got to untangle our competing demands for water and energy.”
Under the industry’s current — or business-as-usual — path, the study found carbon emissions would stay within 5 percent of current levels. The industry’s water withdrawals would only dip slightly before 2030 and then drop further by 2050, prolonging the sector’s exposure to water risks.
In the Southeast, this status quo path would eventually reduce water consumption and withdrawals, but would also decrease water quality as the heated water released by power plants increases the temperature of nearby waterways. On the Coosa River above Weiss Lake on the Alabama-Georgia border, water temperatures in 2040-2049 would exceed 90°F 18 days per year on average, three times what the study projects would happen in 2010-2019 because of increasing temperatures and lower water availability. Such high water temperatures severely stress and can kill aquatic life and ecosystems.
“This report comes at a critical time for Alabama as state leaders grapple with developing a comprehensive water management plan and crucial Coosa River Basin policies are in the process of being finalized,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance. “Decisions made in each of these processes will solidify the health of Alabama’s water resources for decades to come. We must make smart choices now regarding all aspects of water, including the impacts of energy sources, if we are to ensure healthy water supplies for future generations.”
A pathway that included strong investments in renewables and energy efficiency, according to the study, would greatly reduce power generation’s water use and carbon emissions. Under such a scenario, water withdrawals would drop by 97 percent from current levels by 2050, with most of that drop occurring within the next 20 years. That approach would also cut carbon emissions 90 percent from current levels, mostly in the near term. A renewables and efficiency path would also be a more affordable path for consumers, the report found.
“Utility companies across the Southeast are at a moment of great change as the economic viability of coal and nuclear plants declines and global awareness of the seriousness of climate change drives new policy measures,” stated Ulla Reeves with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The choices made today will decide how much of a strain their energy portfolio will place on the region’s dwindling water supplies and contribute to the effects of climate change in the decades to come.”
Water temperatures would also drop under the renewables and efficiency path, with the research showing water temperatures from the Coosa River staying below 90°F in 2040-2049, because of the phase-out of coal-fired power plants on the river.
The study concluded that many near-term options exist to reduce current risks and develop a resilient electricity system. Options include prioritizing low-carbon, water-smart energy options such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, upgrading power plant cooling with systems that ease local water stress, and instituting state-level integrated resource planning that connects energy and water decision makers.
“Making low-carbon, water-smart choices is a high-stakes effort. The choices we make in the near term to define the power sector of the 21st century will in turn shape changes to our water resources directly, to our climate and long-term hydrology, and to the power sector’s long-term resilience,” said George Hornberger, director of Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Energy & Environment and member of the project’s scientific advisory committee. “We set electricity and water on a collision course years ago. Now we must build a power system hard-wired not for risk, but for resilience.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future. For more information, go to www.ucsusa.org.
Founded in 1985, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible energy choices that create global warming solutions and ensure clean, safe, and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Learn more at www.cleanenergy.org.
The Alabama Rivers Alliance is the statewide organization working to defend and restore Alabama’s rivers by advocating for smart water policy, organizing at the grassroots level, and teaching citizens how they can protect their water in order to achieve healthy rivers, healthy people, and a healthy system of government for the state of Alabama. Please visit www.alabamarivers.org for more information.