Power Generation Threatening SE Water Supplies

Guest Blog | July 16, 2013 | Press Releases

Teleconference for media regarding report release was held at 11am EST, July 16.
To listen to the audio file of the conference, click here.

ATLANTA (July 16, 2013) – Decision makers in Southeastern states stand at a critical moment when they can dramatically lower the power industry’s draw on the region’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.

Power generation accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s freshwater withdrawals. The Southeast’s population is expected to grow 40 percent by 2030, which will increase demand for electricity and as 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