Report says power plants are taxing U.S. freshwater supplies

A new report from an advocacy group argues U.S. freshwater resources are increasingly burdened by electricity generating plants and cites Texas’ record drought problem as an example.

U.S. power plants withdrew enough freshwater each day in 2008 from rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers to supply 60 to 170 cities the size of New York City, according to the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and a team of researchers. Power plants also have stressed freshwater sources by discharging water at temperatures that are harmful to fish and other wildlife, the report said.

The report cites Texas as an example of “how heat and drought can quickly expose the energy sector’s dependence on potentially scarce water resources.”

“Because many power plants depend so heavily on water, there’s a real risk that they’ll have to cut back electricity production at times when they can’t get enough cooling water,” said Kristen Averyt, researcher with the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Just ask power companies in Texas.”

The report said Texas’ power system is already better prepared to handle droughts and extreme weather than other states’ systems, owing to its reliance on wind and natural-gas power and its being “relatively accustomed” to droughts.

Texas’ electric grid nonetheless faced crisis over the summer during the state’s drought and record high temperatures. Several plants had problems when the temperature of water in cooling reservoirs didn’t drop enough overnight, leading to less efficient operations. The state came close to initiating rolling blackouts.

Problem could worsen

The problem could worsen and more states could have ordeals similar to what Texas has faced, the report warned. Population growth, rising temperatures and droughts are pushing up electricity demand and further stressing freshwater supplies, the report said.

As for next summer, “the weather forecasters aren’t giving us a lot of hope,” said Kent Saathoff, vice president of system planning and grid operations for Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s main grid operator.

The report recommends that Texas boost energy efficiency and rely more on power sources, such as wind, that use less water. Also some power plants could recirculate cooling water instead of using it just once, the report said.

“Anything that would reduce demand for electricity would reduce the need for cooling water and that would help,” Saathoff said. “But no one of those is a solution to the problem.”

Dry-cooling is another possible solution to reduce water use but it’s expensive, Saathoff added. Dry-cooling uses air instead of water to cool steam, and it can decrease a plant’s water consumption by 90 percent or more.

Texas’ electricity system faces other concerns going forward.

Industry has hesitated to build new power plants in Texas, concerned that return on investment won’t be high enough.

EPA rules

Looming air-pollution rules for power plants could compound the problem, Saathoff said.

Texas officials and lawmakers contend two Environmental Protection Agency rules also could threaten electric reliability in the state.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule has been especially controversial. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, it will require power plants in Texas and 26 other states to cut soot- and smog-forming emissions that can travel to downwind states.

Texas has asked a federal appeals court to block the rule, alleging it didn’t have enough chance to comment on its inclusion and saying the state doesn’t have enough time to comply. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, has asked President Obama to withdraw or delay the rule, saying it could force capacity reductions during a time of record droughts and high temperatures, “placing Texans’ health and safety in jeopardy.”

EPA has proposed technical changes that soften Texas’ emissions requirement and delay a cap on interstate emissions trading for two years. Attorney General Greg Abbott called the changes “minor” and vowed to continue the lawsuit.

Texas is also part of a court motion to delay finalization of an EPA air-toxics power-plant rule from Dec. 16 to November 2012 over similar concerns regarding reliability.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson contends the agency’s rules won’t cause reliability problems, saying no such incidents have occurred in the Clean Air Act’s 40-year history. Officials also say power plants can use existing technologies and should have enough time to comply.

Republicans in Congress have unsuccessfully sought to delay, weaken or scuttle the rules.