DOE says climate impacts, especially water scarcity, pose a threat to energy resources

LLNL US water flows 2005_arrow.png

The Department of Energy (DOE) released a study last week that, in my opinion, reads a little bit like an ironic B-level horror movie screenplay. I’m imagining a mad scientist that creates a monster, and the monster wreaks havoc all over town, eventually destroying its own mad-scientist creator.

Ok, admittedly this is not a perfect analogy, but bear with me. We all know that the energy sector (or…the mad scientist) is responsible for a significant portion of the carbon pollution that fuels climate change (a.k.a., the havoc-wreaking monster). The ironic plot twist is that, according to the new DOE report, climate change poses a serious threat to the energy sector. The report identifies several climate change vulnerabilities of oil and gas production, electric power generation and fuel transport – many due to climate impacts on water resources.

The flow chart above, made by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, shows that a huge amount of water is withdrawn just for electric power plants -- nearly as much as all other water uses combined.

Putting the importance of the report’s findings aside for a moment, one great thing about the DOE report is that it paves the way for similar reports from other agencies. As I mention in a previous blog, some amount of climate change is now unavoidable. Federal agencies have a critical role to play in helping the nation to understand our risks and to prepare for climate impacts. And sector-wide vulnerability assessments are a piece of the puzzle that helps decision-makers at all levels, from home-owners to CEOs to local planners.

President Obama's climate action plan, released in June, calls on federal agencies to study sector-wide climate vulnerabilities. While DOE's report was in the works before the President's announcement, it's encouraging to see early deliverables, especially on preparedness initiatives. Time will tell, but I think this bodes well for strong implementation of the climate plan by the Obama administration.

All right, back to the DOE report findings.  Climate change may have big consequences for the energy sector, especially when it comes to water availability. Our energy system needs a lot of water and, unfortunately, climate change is projected to diminish water supplies in many regions, from Florida to California, as evaporation intensifies and precipitation patterns change. At the same time, climate change is projected to increase water demand as temperatures get hotter. 

Here are a few examples of vulnerabilities to climate change and water availability, from the DOE report:

  • Thermoelectric power, including coal, nuclear, natural gas, and bioenergy power plants, will require more water for cooling to account for increasing temperature trends. Meanwhile, water temperatures will be warmer, and drought will be more common in many regions.
  • Decreasing water availability leaves the oil and gas industry vulnerable, as large amounts of water are needed for refining, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing.
  • Shifting precipitation patterns could affect some types of non-fossil and renewable energy sources, including hydropower, bioenergy, and concentrated solar power.

In addition to hotter temperatures and shrinking water resources, the DOE report also shows that climate-related extreme weather poses serious risks to our energy sector. Drought and flooding affects water levels of rivers and ports, with consequences for fuel transport by rail and barge. On the coasts, energy infrastructure is vulnerable to rising sea levels, increasing storm intensity, and higher storm surges.

This is all pretty worrisome but, of course, the DOE report is telling the mad scientist that he needs to do something before his monster destroys him.  So, what changes do we need to see in the energy sector? First, we need to shift toward low-carbon energy solutions –the President’s memorandum to use the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution, and NRDC’s proposal to create standards for existing power plants, will accelerate that needed shift.

In addition to low-carbon energy solutions, we also need low-water energy solutions to build resilience to climate impacts. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its “Water-Smart Power” report a few days ago that helps to address this issue. The UCS study shows we can meet electricity demand with a renewables/efficiency scenario that would reduce water withdrawals by 97% and carbon pollution by 90% from the power sector’s current levels by 2050. DOE also makes a number of recommendations, noting in its report that we can significantly reduce water dependency of power plants by switching to dry and wet-dry hybrid cooling technologies or using alternative water sources instead of freshwater. EPA has an opportunity to implement this solution through its upcoming rulemaking on section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act.

So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the energy sector can use creative solutions and transform itself to become cleaner, more efficient, and more resilient to the threats of climate change. The bad news is my B-movie horror flick analogy falls apart here since I’ve lost the ironic plot twist, and the monster won’t end up destroying its mad scientist creator. I’m thinking it’s probably better this way, since we all prefer happy endings.