Energy's Dangerous Water Addiction

Should society devote millions of gallons of water to
fracking or running coal plants amid water shortages endangering the global
food supply?

The record-breaking US drought this summer and
energy-related water shortages across India and China are highlighting another
environmental side effect of oil and gas exploration, coal-fired power plants
and nuclear plant development – they all use way more water than our society
can afford.

And that’s just the water these activities prevent from
being used for agricultural purposes or human consumption. It doesn’t take
account the water that faces potential contamination risk.

The threat appears most acute in Asia, where rivers are
being diverted feed thirsty coal-fire power plants: India and China alone plan
to build $720 billion in new coal generators over the next two decades.

The ones in China will drink up 82 billion cubic meters
of water a year by 2030, which is second to farming interests, estimates
McKinsey & Co. Grasslands in Inner Mongolia are already drying up as a

In India, more than 73% of the planned new coal capacity
is in water-scare or stressed areas, reports Bloomberg. The ground zero, if you
will, in India is the Mahandhi River, which is being tapped for numerous
industrial interests alongside the coal development. Some farmers have even
committed suicide over the situation.

About half of the planned power capacity across India and
Southeast Asia is subject to water-scarcity risks.

"You’re going to have a huge issue with the
competition between water, energy and food," Vineet Mittal, managing
director of Welspun Energy, told Bloomberg. "Water is something that
everyone should be probing every chief executive about."

Coal plants use about three times more water on average
as a natural gas generator, per unit of power produced, estimates the US
Department of Energy. Nuclear generators use even more.

The water is needed for steam, as well as to help
condense and process waste. Oh, and don’t forget that water is used during coal
mining to remove impurities and turn it into slurry, which is transported
through pipelines.

Fracking’s Drinking Habit

Natural gas has its own water addiction problem.

A single fracking well for either oil or natural gas can
require up to 5 million gallons, which is being sourced from places such as
municipal water supplies, farm ponds and irrigation ditches. Once water is used
for fracking purposes, it is essentially taken out of the water supply.

Typically, energy companies need to lease the rights to
this water – which can be a welcome source of funding for municipal or state
governments. But, increasingly, those interests are at odds with those of the
agricultural industry, reports The New York Times.

"Energy companies are moving quickly to shore up
supplies," Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at
Colorado State University, told The New York Times. "They’re going to find
it, and they’re going to pay what they need to pay, and it’s on an order of
magnitude of what crop producers can afford to pay. That changes the whole

In Colorado, the water needs of the state’s gas and oil
interests will grow at an estimated 16% over the next three years.

In late June, 37 approvals for water withdrawals related
to fracking in Pennsylvania and New York were withdrawn by the Susquehanna
River Basic Commission because of the region’s water shortage over the summer.

Electricity production at coal, nuclear and natural gas
power plants is the fastest growing use of freshwater in the US, accounting for
half of all withdrawals from rivers, reports EcoWatch.

That’s more than any other economic sector, including
agriculture, and it’s a source for real concern as climate change alters water
supply dynamics around the world.

Renewable energy isn’t immune, but comparatively
speaking, solar PV and wind are the least water-intensive energy generation
methods, according to research from the World Policy Institute.

For more research on the energy-water nexus:

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