Energy Production & Water Use: Preparing for a Drier Future


Denver, Colorado   March 8, 2013


Alice Madden of the University of Colorado, Denver moderated a discussion on water consumption planning in a drought environment.  She noted an increase in populations across the West, and charged the panelists with delineating how states could engage in water resource planning.

John Stulp, Director of the Interbasin Compact Committee and Colorado Special Policy Advisor to the Governor for Water, opened the discussion by describing water availability in Colorado and the state planning process.  Stulp explained Colorado is experiencing a significant drought, with the State in an arid D4 drought condition.  He further explained because approximately 80% of Colorado’s population lives on the eastern side of the state, and 20% lives on the western side, water is diverted from the west to the east.  Nonetheless, Colorado must let some water leave the state in order to comply with interstate water agreements.  Stulp noted two out of every three gallons of water in Colorado go to out-of-state users.  Yet these out-of-state users have never forced Colorado to curtail water rights in the 90 years since the enacting of the interstate agreements. However, with climate change and extreme drought, Colorado may have to curtail water rights. Stulp explained agriculture uses eighty-six percent of water in Colorado, municipalities and industry use twelve percent, and self-supplied industrial users consume only two percent.  Stulp further noted between fourteen thousand and fifteen thousand acre feet of water go toward hydraulic fracturing processes in Colorado.

Stulp gave an overview of the Interbasin Compact Committee reports, based on the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative.  Even with proposed projects making the possibility of greater water availability, Stulp explained, Colorado will still experience an annual 390,000 acre foot shortfall.  Stulp noted the Colorado Water Conservation Board (“Board”) considered several water availability scenarios. Board’s main recommendation was to minimize the effects of buy and dry, where purchasers buy new water supplies from agricultural users and agricultural users then “dry out” their land. Board also recommended increased conservation, while maintaining non-consumptive water allocations for tourism and recreation.

Kristen Averyt, Associate Director for Science at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (“CIRES”), spoke next. Her presentation concerning the energy-water nexus, focused on electricity generation and water use. Averyt noted in the United States, generating electricity accounts for forty one percent of all water withdrawals. Industry withdraws the water primarily to run and cool power plants.  Averyt explained the electricity sector is the only energy sector where water needs are actually growing nationally and internationally.  Ironically, thirteen percent of energy produced in the United States is used to clean, convey, and pump water.  In California, water related energy uses consume about twenty percent of the electricity supply.  The water related uses consume much of the energy by moving, conveying, and storing water. Averyt then explained power plants are the primary contributor to thermal pollution in the country.  Additionally, in some areas, electricity withdrawals account for above ninety percent of all water withdrawals in the municipality.  In the Lower Colorado and Rio Grande, power plants use mostly ground water and recycled water, because of the scarcity of surface water.

Averyt noted the Colorado River is expected to decline by ten to fifteen percent over the next forty years.  Averyt projected a twenty to thirty percent increase in water stress, based on current power plant demand for water.  Averyt emphasized electricity generation is vulnerable to water shortage.  Lastly, Averyt presented research on how low carbon energy production impacts water use.  She explained that producing energy under a carbon budget might mean a 1.5 to two million acre feet increase in the monthly average volume of water available for storage in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.  At current coal/natural gas production ratios, Averyt projected a net decline of two million acre feet in available water for storage in both lakes over the next forty years.  Averyt further noted low carbon energy productions means states would preserve more water in groundwater aquifers.

Amelia Nuding, Water and Energy Analyst of Western Resource Advocates, discussed managing energy and water during drought in the West.  Specifically, she presented research on how electricity power plants use energy during a drought.  Nuding noted some of the challenges faced by electricity generators include insufficient water resources, degraded water quality, and high water temperatures not suitable for power plant processes.  Nuding further highlighted case studies demonstrating how some states have reacted to drought.  In one case study, Texas risked losing roughly 3000 megawatts of electricity due to lack of water.  Texas responded by bringing power plants, previously mothballed, online to supplement existing energy supply.  Texas also had to curtail 1200 water rights to manage the problem.  The State mostly curtailed senior agricultural water rights in the process.  Nuding presented more research focusing on the impact of drought in the West on power generation mixes.  The study postulated that due to the drought: coal production will go down; natural gas production will increase; hydroelectric production will decrease; renewable energy production will stay the same; electricity prices will increase; and carbon dioxide emissions will increase—primarily because of the drop in hydroelectric power.  Nuding outlined a way forward in a drought environment: (i) utilities need to share more information on water use and water intensity with their respective states; (ii) communities need to realize the value of water and the opportunity cost of using water; and (iii) society has to recognize the risk of drought and the impact drought has on energy production.

Nuding summed up by noting most energy companies and water commissions run their water conservation programs independently. Nuding argued because there may be opportunities for synergies in combining water conservation efforts, utilities and water commissions should integrate their conservation programs.

The panelists concluded by acknowledging as population increases, the need for energy increases.  Therefore, communities need to find more efficient ways to use water in the production of energy.