Water Smart

Water scarcity may not appear pressing for a coastal city like Boston, but not all of Massachusetts lies on the water. (Photo credit: torbakhopper)

Water scarcity may not seem threatening for a coastal city like Boston, but not all of Massachusetts lies on the water. (Photo credit: torbakhopper)

Frequent droughts have sparked water wars across America, but energy policies like the Bay State’s could turn the tide.

America has an energy problem.  Many aging U.S. power plants are nearing the end of their operational lives, an issue magnified by the looming threat of climate change.  With global temperatures rising, what should replace our aging infrastructure?  Following decades of reliance on fossil fuels, where do states turn next?

The Massachusetts model may be best, combining energy-efficiency and renewable energy generation for a conscientious approach with one noteworthy side effect: protection of an increasingly-vital energy resource.  Not oil or natural gas, but water.

It may be abundant in the Bay State, but access to fresh water has become a critical issue in drier states to the south and west.  A warming planet means that water wars may spread to New England, but steps can be taken now to prevent catastrophe later.  A low-carbon “water-smart” solution built on energy-efficiency and renewable energy generation has served the Commonwealth well and could prove a godsend in other states.

A “water-smart” energy plan reduces and ultimately eliminates reliance on dirty, water-intensive sources of energy such as coal.  Coal-fired power plants across America consume more than a trillion gallons of water each year, a figure that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has projected will rise to nearly 1.4 trillion by 2030.  Shifting reliance to renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) could push consumption under a trillion gallons by 2025 and 0.2 trillion by 2050.

The Commonwealth’s relative wetness provides some protection from water scarcity, but the projections offer little comfort.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors over a hundred Massachusetts waterways, nearly a fifth of the state’s rivers reached record low levels in 2012. Many Midwestern states watched their aquifers literally disappear before their eyes.  If record lows persist, severe summer droughts could bring similar conditions to New England.  Wetter states cannot afford to rely entirely on hope that the problem will pass them by.

Of course, water scarcity is not the only reason to consider alternatives.  For example, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reported in 2010 that Massachusetts power plants emitted more than 20 million tons of carbon dioxide.  Coal-fired plants alone accounted for roughly half of that pollution. Many of these generators have been in operation for decades, dating from a time before clean or efficient energy technology.  They are in many cases inefficient and highly polluting, with owners resistant to environmental reform.  Should retrofit prove impossible, the time may have come to consider closure and replacement.

Shifting from water-intensive coal, nuclear, and natural gas to renewable alternatives appears understandably daunting.  Available research suggests few stopgap measures between the two extremes, slowing the rate of adoption even in greener states.  Massachusetts is no exception and still relies overwhelmingly on dirty, out-of-state energy production.  Governor Deval Patrick has moved to reclaim the Commonwealth’s energy independence, and that could make all the difference.

The UCS forecasts that the widespread adoption of more efficient heating, cooling, and lighting technologies could offset all projected growth in energy demand by 2050 while sharply reducing carbon emissions.  Renewable alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal could then supply up to 80% of the remaining electrical demand.  If that sounds too good to be true, there is one important caveat.

UCS projections rely upon immediate, widespread reform across the American energy sector, unlikely amid partisan skepticism and withering political gridlock.  Domestic energy generation must nonetheless play a central role, allowing systemic change independent of foreign energy interests.  Water conservation has never been a driving factor in national energy policy or international energy negotiations, but the evidence is difficult to ignore. It deserves a seat at the table before we all pay the price.

A version of this article originally appeared on Energy Smarts, an energy policy blog produced by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER).

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