ATLANTA (July 16, 2013) – Decision makers in Southeastern states such as Georgia stand at a critical crossroads when they can dramatically lower the power industry’s draw on Georgia’s strained water supply by replacing 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.
Georgia’s electricity sector is the largest freshwater user in the state and power generation accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s withdrawals. As the Southeast’s population grows, demand for electricity increases and the effects of climate change mount, greater strain is placed on 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.
“In Georgia, Southern Company’s fleet of fossil-fuel and nuclear facilities are responsible for fifty percent of all water withdrawals,” said Chris Manganiello, Policy Director for Georgia River Network. “Last week, the Georgia Public Service Commission took a step down the right path by requiring Georgia Power to include new solar generation and to retire fifteen dirty coal and oil units in their long-term energy plan. Georgia’s rivers, communities and economic future are riding on the energy choices our utilities make today.”
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.
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 Wansley power plant along the Chattahoochee River in Georgia is a 3,800-megawatt coal- and gas-fired power plant cooled by a recirculating system. The modeling suggests that the stretch of the Chattahoochee below Wansley would regularly have five to ten percent higher flows by 2025 under the renewables/efficiency scenario than under the business-as-usual case.
“Technology options available today can provide an electricity system with far lower water and climate risks, and a system based on efficiency and renewables is a sound and speedy way to do it,” stated Sara Barczak with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Unfortunately, Georgia Power and their utility partners’ lack of leadership on energy efficiency and continued pursuit of extremely expensive, highly water-intensive new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle along the Savannah River is clearly moving in the wrong direction.”
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.
Georgia River Network is a non-profit 501c3 organization working to ensure a clean water legacy by engaging and empowering Georgians to protect, restore and enjoy our rivers from the mountains to the coast. For more information, please visit www.garivers.org.