Most of the time, when you hear about environmentalists decrying the construction of a new coal-fired power plant, their objections are in relation to localized pollution or carbon dioxide emissions. Less frequently do you hear about protests related to the vast amounts of water that are needed to keep these plants running – water that is in short supply in many places.
Yet, in southeastern Colorado, this is exactly what has happened. In response to proposals from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to build a new coal-fired power plant in the region, Environment Colorado stepped in to point out that the new plant would consume large quantities of water once it became operational. This is a heavy burden in an area where current projects and conservation programs are currently expected to meet only 82% of water needs – a shortfall that could land the Arkansas Basin with a deficit of 10 billion gallons of water per year!
As a result, Tri-State switched tactics and decided to explore the possibility of constructing a solar powered plant instead. A switch to renewable energy sources could be a smart move for utility companies in light of recent reports, such as a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, that found that wind turbines used between 200 and 600 fewer gallons of water to produce a megawatt hour of electricity when compared to a modern gas-fired power plant.
While Tri-State has not made a decision regarding the proposed plant in southeastern Colorado, it has moved forward on a partnership with First Solar Inc. to build one of the largest solar photovoltaic projects in the world. The Cimmaron Solar Project, located in northeastern New Mexico, will involve the installation of 500,000 solar panels – enough to power about 9,000 homes!
There have been similar trends in many portions of the western U.S., where water shortages are most extreme. Similarly, the drought in the South-eastern U.S. in 2008 highlighted how critical water is to energy production,when nuclear power plant operations were stretched thin as a result of water shortages. While some nuclear plants utilize technology to create a closed system that minimizes water use, other plants use up to 1 billion gallons of water a day to cool reactors. Some plants in the South were forced to consider reducing operations, or even shutting down, due to the continued lack of rainfall.
Yet, renewable energy is not without its problems. Expansion of renewables may face increasing scrutiny as the size of projects is scaled up. For example, last summer the U.S. Bureau of Land Management placed a moratorium on solar power plant projects on public lands, citing the need for more extensive environmental impact assessments, a process that could take up to 2 years. The assessment will examine various environmental impacts, including how water used by the solar plants could impact the local hydrology. This could be especially important in arid regions where the majority of projects would be built.
While some may be frustrated by this turn of events, it illustrates how tricky it can be to protect natural resources, while producing the energy that we use everyday. What is clear is that there is a growing need to understand and manage the dynamic relationship between water and energy use in our society.