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Most people don’t think about the connection between energy and water, but about half of the nation’s water use is related to cooling power plants. Oil and gas productions also account for millions of gallons a day. This means that record-setting droughts in the Midwest and South are threatening power plants during the peak usage periods in summer months.
- Michael Webber Co-Director, Clean Energy Incubator; Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Associate Director, Center for International Energy & Environmental Policy
- Steven LeVine Fellow, New America Foundation; contributing editor, Foreign Policy magazine
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMany of us don't think about the link between water and energy, but about half of our nation's water withdrawals go just to cool power plants. And the oil and gas industries use millions more gallons daily. It's known as the energy water nexus, how much of each is needed to make the other available. This means that record droughts across the Midwest and South don't just threaten crops. Ongoing dry spells combined with high temperatures and lots of air conditioners could mean power shortages and grid shutdowns.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd as our energy needs grow, some say water has to be part of the discussion about where we'll get our energy in the future. Joining us to discuss this in studio, Steve Levine. He is a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the contributing editor at Foreign Policy Magazine writing on the geopolitics of energy. Steve Levine, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEVEN LEVINEThanks very much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of KUT in Austin, Texas is Michael Webber. He's a professor of engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. Michael Webber, thank you for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL WEBBERMy pleasure.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we should take water resources into account when we make choices about energy for the future? 800-433-8850. Michael, this is not a connection most people make. What is the relationship between water and energy?
WEBBERSo this is a surprise for many people about how much water we use for energy and how much energy for water. It basically works out that we use about half our water withdrawals every day just to cool power plants. We also use water to grow energy crops or to cool the refineries or to do oil and gas production from the ground. And then we also use a lot of energy for water to heat, treat, pressurize it, chill it, move it.
WEBBERAnd about something like 12 percent of our national energy consumption is just for our water system. So they're pretty closely related but historically have not been treated that way from a policy perspective. And that introduces the risks of vulnerabilities if we're not careful.
NNAMDIWhat kinds of energy production in this country use the most water, Michael?
WEBBERPower plants are the biggest users of water for the cooling. They withdraw a lot of water. Now, they only evaporate or consume a small fraction of that. Most of the water they use they return back to the lakes or rivers or wherever they got the water from. But if you count the withdrawals then power plants or the power sector for electricity generation is the biggest user of water among all the energy options.
WEBBERThen if you look at it on a per energy basis of -- from just consumption, things like biofuels use a lot of water for oil and gas, although it's still much smaller than what the power plants use.
NNAMDISteve Levine, you point out that somewhat unexpectedly the U.S. right now is looking at an abundance when it comes to energy resources, namely in oil and natural gas in the near future. That's not the narrative most of us are used to hearing. Can you explain?
LEVINEThat's right. So until just a very few months ago -- about eight or nine months ago the prevailing narrative was that we were heading into an era of scarcity in which we were going to run out of oil. We were all going to have to go back to the forest. How were we going to power our factories and our lives and our cars and so forth? And what's happened over the last few months is that we've heard and we've understood that there's a lot more oil than -- and gas than we thought in the United States, all over North America, and then really around the world.
LEVINEAnd so the narrative has changed to what are we going to do with this flood? We no longer have to worry about getting off oil or about dependence on the Middle East.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If we are indeed looking at a future with abundant oil and gas resources, what does that mean for environmental issues? You may want to chime in with a question or comment, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojosho.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Steve, is there any dispute among experts? Are we looking at an oil and gas boom in the near future for sure?
LEVINEThere is a dispute, but it centers not on the existence of the resources, but on whether for the reasons that the other guest states and that other people state, are we willing to take the risks to sacrifice some parts of our lives? For example, living standards, our lifestyles, price, cost and so forth in order for that to happen?
NNAMDIYou wouldn't know it right now as gas prices in our region still seem to be climbing, but if we are predicting an oil boom in the U.S. gas prices, one presumes, are likely to fall. What affect do you think on how Americans -- that will have on how Americans see environmental issues, starting with you, Michael Webber?
WEBBERWell, I think there's always a tension between the economic prosperity that additional oil and gas production holds as a promise versus the potential environmental downsides that are the risks that we have to tolerate along the way. And I think as people see more - and I promise they're more willing to negotiate with themselves about what the environmental tradeoffs are. That's one piece of it.
WEBBERThe other piece is, if we're feeling richer, than we have more money to deal with the environment. And if we're feeling more prosperous, we'll spend more for energy resources to protect the environment. But when we're feeling poor, we're less likely to take the money to protect it. So it's a good news bad news story. The good news is, as we get richer from additional oil and gas production, we'll have the resources we need to protect the environment. But as we do more oil and gas production, there might be more risks that we introduce. And so we have to keep that in balance along the way.
NNAMDISteve Levine, same question.
LEVINEI agree with that answer. People -- what will happen is that because there'll be so much oil and gas, that means that prices will go down. And so there will be the temptation, of course, since prices are so low and I'm enjoying cheap prices, I'm going to, again, buy a large vehicle, I'm going to burn more gas. And you end up in the same circular narrative that we've had in the past. You also end up with a choice and it's the choice that's already been described, and that's do we want to pay the extra dollar for cleaner air to protect against climate change -- the threat of climate change and to reduce the risk to our water supplies?
NNAMDIHot political potato. Let's go to Steve in McLean, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEYes. I believe the fact that we were being warned just last winter that by this summer we'd be paying $5 a gallon or more, and I saw that on CNN, MSNBC, it was everywhere. The fact now that they're saying we have an abundance is the most ridiculous statement I've ever heard. It's not as if suddenly hiding under a rock somewhere they found all these reserves. They know exactly how much there is and it speaks to the disingenuous relationship that the oil companies have with the American public.
NNAMDII'm not sure. What do you think, Steve, is true?
STEVEOh, I know -- well, let's say I'm fairly certain that there's a lot more oil than we've been led to believe. There are thousands of capped wells in the United States that have plenty of oil in them. But if you've got a monopoly on an energy source you have to create an artificial scarcity to drive the price up.
NNAMDISteve Levine, regardless of whether or not there was any kind of backdoor conspiracy involved here, what is it that accounts for the change -- some would argue the drastic change in the predictions that we were getting a year ago from the predictions we're getting today?
LEVINEI want to say first that I totally agree with the spirit of that caller, Steve because I've had whiplash myself with the change of the narrative. Yet, it's true and what it's attributed to is high prices. So because oil companies have been earning a lot more money over the last five years, remember that oil in 2008 went almost to $150 dollars per barrel. So because oil companies have earned such high profits, they've gone around the world, they drilled a lot more, they drilled in places that they knew where there was oil. They drilled in places where they didn't know and they have come up with a lot.
LEVINEBut the bottom line is we are presented with a choice that we didn't have in the past. Our choice is not, do we have to get off of oil because we're running out or because we need to isolate ourselves from the Middle East? It's do we want one set of lifestyle or another?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. You too can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Were you aware of how much water it takes to produce energy? Do you think we should take water resources into account when we make choices about energy for the future, and if we are indeed looking at a future with abundant oil and gas resources, what do you think that means for the environmental issues that now confront us? 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the relationship between drought and energy. We're talking with Steve LeVine. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine writing on the geo-politics of energy. Michael Webber joins us from Austin, Texas. He's a professor of engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. And Michael, getting back to the connection between water and energy, the west obviously has water issues in the best of times, but it's facing the worst drought in decades. What's happening there now?
WEBBERYeah. This is the challenge out in the west where drought is a way of life. One of the parts of it is when there's drought you have less water for your crops, but there's also less water to cool your power plants. There's also less water to generate hydroelectric from dams. There's also less water available to grow energy crops or anything else related to the energy sector. So this is a challenge in the west, and what we're finding today is that the story of drought in the west is not longer restricted to just the west.
WEBBERTexas last year had epic drought, the worst drought in recorded history, and now the Midwest is having a huge drought. So we're seeing a lot of economic risk to the different sectors that depend on water wherever the drought is hitting.
NNAMDIWhat about the Mid-Atlantic region? We may not be facing drought here, but we've had record high temperatures. Should we also be concerned about water issues?
WEBBERYou should. Even in areas that are historically water rich, we're starting to confront some water challenges. One is the heat waves and the demand for energy that are a result of that from everyone turning on their air conditioners is straining the grid. The grid has trouble keeping up when there's a heat wave, and secondly, when there's a heat wave, the water that's used to cool the power plants is hotter, and it doesn't cool the power plant as effectively.
WEBBERSo the irony, or the unfortunate irony, is that as demand is higher for power for air conditioning, the power plants don't work as well because of the hot water, and then at some point they start to violate environmental laws from thermal pollution if they're not careful, where they actually heat the water up too much at the power plant as they use it, and that puts the ecosystem at risk. So even in water-rich areas that haven't had to worry about drought historically, still face water constraints because of heat waves and other changes in behavior, and just population growth putting more strain on the resource.
NNAMDIWell, Michael, it's my understanding that there are energy technologies that use less water. Can you talk a little bit about dry cooling?
WEBBERSure. So a lot of the cooling technologies that we have on power plants today were invented many decades ago, and have been in place for 40 years or so, and they're not really that advanced. But as we build new power plants, we might consider something called dry cooling or hybrid wet-dry cooling. These are cooling systems for power plants that either use no water, or use a lot less water, and that can be advantageous because not all power plants need wet cooling all the time. Generally wet cooling performs much better so power plant operators don't want to use dry cooling.
WEBBERBut if you use dry cooling, you don't have to have water around necessarily, and that makes you more resilient against the droughts and heat waves, and it's a classic trade-off in the energy sector where you have to pay more up front to get that resiliency downstream, but it's an option. And then in the winter, that same dry cooling plant does not produce a plume, and a lot of people don't like the white plumes of water vapor that come out smoke stacks because it is a form of sight pollution. So you get different advantages in droughts versus winter from the same system, and that's pretty appealing.
NNAMDIWhat are some recommendations as to how we might address this water issue, Michael?
WEBBERI think one of the things we first need to do is identify it as relevant, so for a long time our energy planners have assumed they have all the water they need, and it'd probably be good for them to not make that assumption but actually do a water resource assessment to figure out if they've got the water they need for their power plant cooling or for the crop growth or for their oil and gas production. And so that's the first step is really do good water resource management and assessment, and unfortunately, that's something that's not really done well in the United States.
WEBBERWe often cut the budgets, we don't take the data, we don't measure where the water flows are or how much rain we've had in every location and how that's filling up reservoirs or not. So better data, better resource management's a good first step. Then we can contemplate some of these newer technologies. Why don't we build a power plant with the latest greatest stuff instead of the same vintage things we've been using for 50 years. That would be a good second step.
WEBBERAnd then things like putting a price on water, valuing it appropriately rather than assuming it should be free and infinite and abundant. That might be a good step, because once we start to value water the right way, we'll conserve it better.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Michael Webber. He's a professor of engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. He joins us from studios in Austin, Texas. Joining us in our Washington studio is Steven LeVine. He is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine where he writes on the geo-politics of energy. Before I get back to the phones, and the number of course is 800-433-8850, Steve, you feel that some environmentalists may be posing a false choice in terms of coal versus renewable energy. Can you explain?
LEVINEI think generally speaking, environmentalists, in my reckoning, that I can tell up until now are in denial about the situation that there's a -- that the era of abundance that time describing that's with us and that seems likely to be with us for the next decade or two or even three, don't except that that's happening and think that the old narrative of scarcity holds, and that the only way to attack the problems of pollution and climate change is through that means.
LEVINEI think that if they want to get the agenda that they are attempting to push through that now is it on the back burner because of the politics right now, they're going to have to embrace the new age and what is really going on and completely refigure -- reconfigure what they say, how they're thinking it and the policy choices that they present. For example, what we're seeing now, especially from the Sierra Club is an approach of let's ignore the natural grass abundance we have in our midst and let's jump directly to renewable energy.
LEVINERenewable energy is not ready. It's not ready economically, it's not ready technologically. However, between coal and there, there is natural gas. It's one-third -- it emits one-third of the CO2 as coal, and so the more reasonable and the more shrewd approach to this problem is to use the middle road which is natural gas.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here is Erik in Arlington, Va. Erik, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERIKThanks, Kojo. I actually was going to call and speak directly to the issue the coal and the substitution of natural gas which is cheaper, more environmentally friendly. By substituting natural gas for coal in power plants you get rid of mercury emissions, you reduce greenhouse emissions by a huge factor, and soot and other issues go away as well -- fly ash disposal for instance, but this has consequences for coal production, coal mining, and the adverse consequences of that production too, because the coal industry is really fighting for its life right now, and that's probably a good thing.
ERIKAnd just as a second point, I just want to reiterate that the withdrawals of water for the production of energy, especially in power plant cooling is returned to the environment so that it is available for other purposes after it's used.
NNAMDICan you explain how that occurs Michael Webber?
WEBBERYeah. So the power plant will withdraw water from a river or like or aquifer, whatever their source is. They'll use it to cool the power plant, and they'll return most of it, although a fraction, a few percent are evaporated which means they are sent to the atmosphere and they come down in some other place as rain or in some other form. So the withdrawals are mostly returned, but not completely returned, and so there is some evaporation and consumption, and even though the withdrawals are returned, they're returned with a slightly different quality, namely it's at a higher temperature and so there's risk that they'll kill (word?) or have some eco-system impact.
WEBBERAnd I say that the challenge of the high withdrawals, even though all that water is not consumed, is that power plant needs that water there in the first place. So if you have a drought at a place where the reservoir will actually fall below the water intake pipe at the power plant, that power plant might have to go offline or shut down or dial back even though it doesn't really evaporate much water, but because it needs so much water just for the cooling.
WEBBERSo there is an important distinction between the withdrawals and consumption to keep in mind, and that's part of the literature and part of the planning, but those withdrawals introduce one set of vulnerabilities.
LEVINEAnd if I may, I'd love to comment about the natural gas transition.
LEVINENatural gas is a big step in the right direction on mercury and carbon, but it's also a big step in the right direction on water. Even the increased water used for hydraulic fracturing is small compared to the water savings you get at a natural gas power plant. So from a water perspective, natural gas is a good step as well.
NNAMDIErik, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe move onto Maya in Silver Spring, Md. Maya, your turn.
MAYAHi. Oh, I just love this topic. Thank you so much for letting me speak. I wanted to go back to the some of the information suppression issues that I was hearing. I'm not an expert on natural gas, but I'm such an advocate for natural gas, and it feels like the gas companies, the powers that be, the corporations have really suppressed information, not just about this, but many products that we use on a daily basis.
MAYAAnd I feel there are two problems. One, information suppression, and two, we don't educate ourselves here in this country. I've known for a long time about all the different options as far as gas and natural gas because I'm interested. But I don't understand why Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, why they aren't talking about natural gas. Why aren't -- they're not, you know, romancing the public with these wonderful options that we have now. We have some options. We are not poor, but they don't want to talk it about it that way.
NNAMDIAny insight into that issue, Steve LeVine, why it's not become a prominent part of our national conversation at the political level?
LEVINEI think it is. I mean, I think that Barack Obama speaks about our energy choices a lot. The difference between the two candidates is that Obama is green-minded, so he is extremely fixed on the future of renewables. He wants the United States to move away over time from fossil fuels, however, he will go has embraced and he has spoken about natural gas, about shale gas, exactly the same thing that we're discussing today, and Mitt Romney is fixed firmly -- I think more firmly in the fossil fuel camp, and wants to not use public subsidies for renewable, but he's also speaking in great detail about that.
LEVINEAnd I wanted to mention one other dimension here, and that is at the same time that one mentions the denial of the environmentalist, there's also denialism among oil and gas companies, and that's that if they want a future in which they're able to pursue their business as fully as they can, then they have to fess up. They also have to be much more public and much more transparent about what they're doing, about the risks of what they're doing.
LEVINEFor example, natural gas companies are not fully transparent about the contaminants the chemicals that go into the fluids that are used in hydraulic fracturing, and they need to be fully transparent and they need to trump it. You see, we care about the environment, we're fully transparent, and that will improve the whole environment, the whole discussion.
NNAMDIMaya, thank you for your call. Michael, it's my understanding that we're facing the question right now about whether to upgrade old plants or build new ones. Why are so many plants hitting that particular age right now?
WEBBERWe had a really big build out of power plants in the early '70s, just because the population growth and economic growth and so new technologies and other concerns. So we had a large build out in the '70s of power plants that today are now 30 to 40 years old. So they're at the point in their natural operational lifetime where a power plant operator would consider whether to retrofit them, to upgrade them to newer standards, or to retire them. And as we have a wave of these contemplations we can consider, well, should we use a fuel that's cleaner or cheaper, should we use a system for cooling or fuel, production system that requires less water.
WEBBERSo these decisions are being contemplated right now. The risk or challenge for the power plant operators is that these plants they built 40 years ago, or mostly paid off and are big money makers. And so they're not eager to see a money maker get shut down, or they're not eager to spend a lot of money to have to upgrade the equipment to help it meet the most up-to-date air quality standards for example. So that's the debate we have now, is decisions that were made 40 years ago are now at a point where we need to figure out what to do with them again.
NNAMDIHere is Mark is southern Maryland who has a question I think that addresses that issue. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKThank you for taking my call. Exactly. There are two older plants here in southern Maryland, and both have been retrofitted with wet scrubbers to reduce the sulfur dioxide going into the atmosphere, which is a good thing, but that process requires fresh water. And even though both of these plants are adjacent to local rivers, the Patuxent and the Potomac, those locations are brackish water, and the wet scrubber system can't use that. They've been granted by the Public Service Commission the right to drill a well to withdraw as much as a million gallons a day the precious drinking water.
MARKLocal residents made such a fuss about it on one of the plants that they were forced to build a wet scrubber instead. I'm sorry, a desalinization plant instead, which they use to this day. The other plant has the well. It just doesn't seem to be a good use of a precious resource.
NNAMDIMichael Weber, we only have about 30 seconds.
WEBBERYeah. This is a challenge. Power plants use water to produce the fuel, to cool the plant, and then to scrub the plant's emissions. We use water all the way along the supply chain. It would be good to think about it and see if there's a better option, and usually there is.
NNAMDIMark, thank you very much for you call. We got an email from Chris in Olney, Steve, who says, "Why assume that prices are going down just because there may be additional resources? The oil companies are going to sell them to the highest bidder, so India and China will vie for it too. There are no guarantees that we'll benefit fully." You've got about ten seconds.
LEVINEWhen you have the kind of surplus that we're talking about on the global market, the law of supply and demand tells us that prices will go down.
NNAMDISteve LeVine is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Webber is a professor of engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer is Timmy Olmsted. Natalie Yuralivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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