Compounding the situation
Lacey We’re not talking about just fossil energies, uh, or nuclear, um, we are talking about renewables as well . . . Uh, biofuels, concentrating solar power, I mean, these are all water-intensive. So this is both for cleaner sources of energy and uh conventional energies.
Webber That’s right. So, the energy-water relationship is not restricted to just the fossil fuels. Although fossil fuels at power plants use a lot of water. It’s, as we go towards renewable sources like wind and solar photovoltaics, these are an improvement from a water perspective, because they don’t use cooling water. However, concentrating solar power uses a lot of water, about the same as a nuclear power plant, biomass power plants that burn wood to get heat and electricty, they also use cooling water, and then we go to liquid fuels and we look at biofuels, they use a lot of water as well — in fact they use an incredible amount of water, per unit of energy produced.
Lacey Same with using electricity to, um, power vehicles, uh, you know, you’re using three or four times the amount of water than gasoline. So we’re really not getting away from the problem — as you’ve said, we are trading our dependence on foreign oil for our dependence on domestic water.
Webber Uh that’s exactly right. When we looked at the transportation sector, most of the new fuels we’re considering, to get away from conventional gasoline and diesel, most of them, depending on how you make them, have a worse water footprint, sometimes dramatically worse, orders of magnitude worse. And so that’s one of the surprises, is that conventional gasoline and diesel are actually pretty good from a water perspective. But as we go to unconventional fossil fuels, coal to liquids, gas to liquids, tar sand, oil shale, they use more water. Electricity uses more water, if it’s from power plants like we just discussed earlier. And, then, if we go to biofuels, they require a lot of water; it’s either from rainfall or irrigation, but they’re taking water out of the system just to grow. And so this will have an effect on the overall water system in the nation. And it’ll vary, in some cases we don’t care — depending on where you are. In the desert southwest you’ll care a lot. These are also choices we’re making, they’re policy imperatives, they’re not geologically constrained or forced upon us, we’re choosing to go towards more water-intensive energy forms.
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Webber The interrelationship of energy and water does invite problems, because as we’re going towards more energy-intensive water, or water-intensive energy, we might have compounding problems. However, the synergies show up in, other way around. Conservation of one becomes conservation of the other. Saving water and saving energy are synonymous. Which is good news: so that means we can get two-for-one benefits — with any approach that reduces consumption. And you get the same with the carbon as well. So, there are opportunities there just to reduce our use — and count the benefits twice, potentially.
Lacey So where do renewables, uh, come into play? How can we focus our policy decisions, uh, and our technological decisions on these so that we use less water?
Webber Usually water’s not considered for our energy policy decisions at all. And so it’d be nice for water to be considered. One way is just to bring some federal attention to the issue, the other is through sophisticated markets that put a price on it. If you put a price on water then people will pay attention. In a lot of places water is free. It’s also expected to be infinite. And there are places in the United States where that’s simply not true; it should not be free and it’s definitely not infinite. And so, if we could find a way to capture the value of water appropriately in our planning, and in our decision making, then probably we’ll get better answers. This is a very controversial thing, though, to say that water should have a price, because there are a lot of human rights questions that get raised. What if someone privatizes water and takes the water away from people who need it just to eat and drink and wash? That’s sort of the question that gets raised. And so there are ways you have to design the market to accommodate that. Maybe the first few gallons a day per person are free, or cheap, or whatever we decide we need, and above that you have an increasing price. Well right now we have a decreasing price — the more you use, the cheaper the price. And so we incentivize greater consumption, because that’s the way we pay for the whole waterworks system. Every person who hook up, hooks up, has to pay, whether you use a gallon or not. And so we can change the structures of our markets and pricing, and that will help bring water into our planning, and then we need to change our policy structures, to realize that water quantity matters.
Lacey So what does the situation look like here in the U.S.? I mean have we reached a crisis yet? Uh, our — People really haven’t recognized the potential problems associated with water and with energy here in the U.S., and there’re billions of people around the world without proper access to water and here in the U.S. we’re very spoiled, but, all the same, we’ve got some pretty serious problems on our hands.
Webber In the U.S. we haven’t quite recognized the severity of the problem, except in isolated pockets where there’s droughts. The, the west has faced this, the southeast has temporarily, Texas, where I’m from, is in the middle of a ten-year drought; so where there’s drought people are starting to deal with the issue, although nothing rash has been done yet. As a nationwide thought, it’s not really in our conscience. In Australia they’re dealing with it because they have a real crisis, and so they’ve thrown out their old rules and old markets and started with just some new ones. You know, it takes a pretty rash situation to get people to do that, apparently, and it sounds like that’s what it’s going to take in the United States as well.
Lacey How would you sum up the way that we use both fossil energies and water in this country and elsewhere?
Webber Our, our children will laugh at us someday, because we spend a great deal of energy bringing grass that’s not native to our lawns, and then we planted the lawns and to get this non-native grass to grow, we have to spend inordinate amounts of energy in moving water to our homes to spray all over the lawn, and then we spend a lot of energy to cut it down. So we’re using liquid gold, water, to grow it and black gold, gasoline, to cut it back down, only to repeat the cycle a few days later. And this is, on the surface, absolutely preposterous; this achieves zero value for society for the most part. There are other ways to get a lawn that’s green or, or a yard that’s nice. And so I think our kids will look back someday and wonder what we were thinking. This makes no sense.
From an Inside Renewable Energy conversation with UT-Austin professor Michael Webber, conducted by host Stephen Lacey.