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photo of electric power plant by a body of water

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Arnold Paul

America has an energy problem. Many aging U.S. power plants are nearing the end of their operational lives. Following decades of reliance on fossil fuels, where do states turn next for their electric power – an issue magnified by the looming threat of global climate change? The Massachusetts model may be best; combining energy-efficiency and renewable energy generation provides a conscientious approach that protects an increasingly vital energy resource, water.

Access to fresh water has become a critical issue in drier states to the south and west. While water may be relatively abundant in Massachusetts, a warming planet means that issue may emerge in the Bay State, although steps can be taken now to prevent catastrophe later. A low-carbon approach to energy generation built on energy-efficiency and renewables, and reduction of coal-fired generation, has served the Commonwealth well. It could prove a godsend in other states, as it’s also water smart.

A “water-smart” energy plan would reduce and eliminate 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. A greater reliance on renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) could drop that consumption under a trillion gallons by 2025 and down to 200 billion by 2050, according to UCS’ Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World — A Report of the Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3).

The Commonwealth’s relative “wetness” offers some protection from water scarcity, but it may only be a matter of time until such scarcity hits the northeast. 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 sources of water evaporate literally before their eyes. Severe summer droughts could bring those same conditions to New England.

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 cleaner, more efficient energy technologies were available. Should retrofit prove impossible, it looks to me to be time for closure and replacement.

photo of power plant by a body of water

Photo Credit: Flickr, Mollivan Jon

I am not aware of any available measures to reduce water use in traditional generation sources, although switching fuels may help in the short term, as less water is used in natural gas-fired plants than in coal-fired. And even renewables are not a perfect solution, since the importance of water to energy generation carries over a bit even to clean energy. As UCS notes, “. . . even water-cooled renewables such as some geothermal, biomass, or concentrating solar could worsen rather than lessen the sector’s effects on water.”

So what is our path forward? 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. Again, the focus keeps coming back to efficiency and the right mix of renewables.

Fresh water is a critical energy resource that America cannot afford to lose sight of as it deals with global climate change. Luckily, options exist to protect our state, the nation, and its water supply even as demand for electricity continues to rise. And once again, Massachusetts is leading the way.

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DOER Intern

Daniel Shea is a summer intern with DOER’s Marketing and Stakeholder Engagement team. A Political Science and Economics major at Northeastern University, Daniel has followed a passion for public policy across city and state government. At school, he served on the Executive Board of Northeastern’s intercollegiate debate team. Out of the office, he enjoys blogging, biking, hiking, and travel.

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