New Report Highlights Power Plant Stress on Freshwater Supplies in Southeast

This article by Aaron Sarver was cross-posted from Footprints on the Path to Clean Energy, the blog of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.


Southern Company's Plant Vogtle along the   Savannah River, where two new reactors are proposed.

A new report by the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3),  “Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants: Electricity’s Thirst for a Precious Resource,” details how water use by power plants for cooling needs stresses freshwater resources around the country, including here in the Southeast. The report also reveals that the reporting of water use to the federal government by utilities needs to be improved.

The report calculated the available water in every major watershed in the U.S. and measured that against the water used by power plants in each watershed. The most recent data available for those calculations was from 2008. The report also looked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s methods for tracking water usage by utilities.

The new research found that parts of the Southeast – a region commonly viewed as having an abundance of water — are experiencing water-supply stress. But unlike the Southwest, where the majority of power plants have minimized their water use, a large share of water stress in the Southeast is being caused by power plants.

“It’s important for the public to know that because many power plants depend so heavily on water, there’s a real risk that they’ll have to cut back electricity production at times when they can’t get enough cooling water,”  the report’s lead researcher, Kristen Averyt, said in a press release. Averyt is deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Colorado’s Western Water Assessment Program. An example of this trend is the severe drought across Texas this summer that led to concern about the amount of water available for planned coal-fired power plants in Texas.

In North Carolina, two rivers, the Catawba and Upper Dan, are impacted by substantial water withdrawals from power plants. The study says that power plants (primarily those owned by Duke Energy) consume between 5 billion and 19 billion gallons of water per year for cooling from the Upper Catawba and South Fork Catawba branches of the Catawba Rivers. Further troubling is a study from Duke Energy finding that by 2048, water supply in the Catawba River will not be able to meet demand.

In Georgia, Power4Georgians is planning to build a coal plant, Plant Washington, just downstream from an area that is already stressed by massive water withdrawals. Since the upstream basin is stressed, it brings into question whether there is adequate water for the proposed new plant, which would also withdraw water from the Oconee, along with other downstream users. However, Plant Washington is not the only new power project on the drawing board in Georgia in which state officials may not be giving water impacts adequate attention.

“This report should give pause to state regulators tasked with evaluating, for instance, the impact the proposed Vogtle nuclear reactors could have on the already stressed Savannah River near Waynesboro,” said Sara Barczak, High Risk Energy Choices program director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Continuing to rely on water-intensive energy supply options for decades to come does not bode well for Georgia’s future water resources.”

In Tennessee, the study shows that water use at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant is stressing the water supply of the Emory River. The 2008 coal ash disaster devastated the Emory River, but that isn’t the extent of Kingston’s impact on our waterways. TVA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to extend the life of the half-century old Kingston plant, so it can be expected that this plant will continue to stress the river for decades to come.

In South Carolina, the EW3 study found the Seneca and Cooper Rivers were stressed due to the vast amounts of local water used for power plant cooling purposes.

To find out more about upcoming events occurring in the Southeast and additional information regarding this report, visit SACE’s Learn About page for the report.

Editor’s note: The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy staff are participating in media and educational events across the region for the report’s release throughout this week. Please continue to follow our blog this week for updates.

More reading:

Think tank: Water needs may limit shale gas, some renewables, June 29, 2011
Water anxiety? Wind power can help, June 16, 2011
Report sees water as utility investment risk factor, October 27, 2010
Use wind, save water, September 20, 2010
20% Wind Energy by 2030 Summary Presentation (pdf)
The Wind/Water Nexus, U.S. Department of Energy fact sheet, 2006 (pdf)


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