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Rising Energy Demand Hits Water Scarcity 'Choke Point'

by Peter Boaz and Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON - Meeting the growing demand for energy in the U.S., even through sustainable means, could entail greater threats to the environment, new research shows.

About half the 410 billion gallons of water the U.S. withdraws daily goes to cooling thermoelectric power plants, and most of that to cooling coal-burning plants, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One of the things missing from the discussion, then, is the recognition that saving energy also saves water, contends Circle of Blue. (photo by Flickr user Argonne National Laboratory) The study was carried out by Circle of Blue, a network of journalists and scientists dedicated to water sustainability, and could have implications not just for the relationship between energy demand and water scarcity in the U.S. but elsewhere in the world, as well. "It is not just that energy production could not occur without using vast amounts of water. It's also that it's occurring in the era of climate change, population growth and steadily increasing demand for energy," explained Circle of Blue's Keith Schneider, who presented the findings in Washington Wednesday.

"The result is that the competition for water at every stage of the mining, processing, production, shipping and use of energy is growing more fierce, more complex and much more difficult to resolve," he said. About half the 410 billion gallons of water the U.S. withdraws daily goes to cooling thermoelectric power plants, and most of that to cooling coal-burning plants, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Meanwhile, climate change is leading to decreased snowmelt, rains and freshwater supplies, says Circle of Blue.

One of the things missing from the discussion, then, is the recognition that saving energy also saves water, the group contends.

The U.S. government has not been blind to the conflict between energy and water needs. The first part of a report commissioned by the U.S. Congress in 2005 laid out the consequences of not paying enough attention to water supply issues in increasing energy production. The second part, which would have laid out a research agenda and begun developing solutions, has yet to be made public, says Schneider.

He says the U.S. Department of Energy has declined repeated requests to explain why the report has not been published.

Energy demand in the U.S. is expected to increase by 40 percent as the U.S. population rises above 440 million by 2050. The water supply will not be able to support that growth, Schneider says.

Renewable sources of energy will certainly be a large part of trying to meet that energy demand, but these, too, come with a hidden water cost.

In 2009, the U.S. dedicated 23 million acres of public lands in six states for new solar electricity-generating plants as part of its economic stimulus package, which apportioned nearly 100 billion dollars for clean energy projects. Though the plan appeared promising, environmentalists soon began to point it could have damaging, unintended consequences. Schneider notes that criticism of the impact the water-cooled solar plants could have on water priorities in the U.S. Southwest even came from within the government.

"In arid settings, the increased water demand from concentrating solar energy systems employing water-cooled technology could strain limited water resources already under development pressure from urbanization, irrigation expansion, commercial interests and mining," wrote Jon Jarvis, then head of the National Park Service's Pacific West Region, in a February 2009 internal memo. "Solar generating plants that use conventional cooling technology use two to three times as much water as coal- fired power plants," Schneider noted.

In other countries, the threat of water scarcity is even more pertinent.

Egypt, for example, has a population of approximately 82 million, but an annual water quota of about 86 billion cubic meters - and the population is expected to rise by more than 10 million people in the next decade.

Yet 30 European blue chip companies are set to invest 560 billion dollars over the next 40 years to build solar power plants in North Africa as part of the Desertec Industrial Initiative. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have agreed to work with the initiative. Comparing this project with the U.S.'s, Schneider notes that in an environment that faces even greater water scarcity than the southwestern U.S., such projects could prove disastrous. Circle of Blue calls the intersection of a rising demand for energy and diminishing supply water a "choke point", but energy development - whether of the fossil fuel or renewable variety - is just one aspect of the water scarcity crisis that is unfolding in various regions of the globe.

Yemen is widely seen as the place where this scarcity will hit first and hardest.

"Analysts are worried Yemen could be the first country in the world to effectively run out of water," said Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where she studies the intersection of natural resources and security issues. She spoke at a separate event Wednesday.

Yemen, which has no rivers and cannot afford desalination, is drawing water at around 400 times its replacement rate, she says, and this looming crisis is compounding other issues in the region, like the fact that Yemen has become a key recruiting spot for groups like al Qaeda.

"We are about to see water wars in the future," said U.S. General Anthony Zinni. "We have seen fuel wars; we're about to see water wars."

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