Investing in renewables and energy efficiency could reduce power plants’ water withdrawals by 97 percent from current levels by 2050 and cut carbon emissions 90 percent from current levels, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3).
Most of the water savings would occur within the next 20 years while the CO2 reductions would happen mostly in the near term.
The study says many near-term options exist to reduce power sector water and climate risks. Options include prioritizing low-carbon, water-smart energy choices, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency; upgrading power plant cooling systems with technologies that ease local water stress; and instituting integrated resource planning that connects energy and water decision making.
The report warns that a “business-as-usual” approach would keep emissions within 5 percent of current levels and water withdrawals would not drop significantly until after 2030. And while utilities’ ongoing shift to natural gas would decrease water use in the coming decades, the study says its ongoing requirements could still harm water-strained areas. This shift to natural gas also would do little to lower the power sector’s carbon emissions.
More than 40 percent of US freshwater withdrawals are used for power plant cooling, the report says. These plants also lose several billion gallons of freshwater every day through evaporation.
Further, increasing demand and drought are putting a greater strain on water resources. Low water levels and high water temperatures can cause power plants to cut their electricity output in order to avoid overheating or harming local water bodies. Such energy and water collisions can leave customers with little or no electricity or with added costs because their electric supplier has to purchase power from elsewhere, as occurred during the past two summers.
Water scarcity, extreme weather events and other climate-related changes in the environment will increasingly affect businesses and how they operate, according to a report released last month by the United Nations Environment Programme.