Fossil Fuel Electricity Generation—The Fastest-growing Use of Freshwater in the U.S.
A new report by River Network provides the first accounting of how much water is used to generate electricity on an average per-kilowatt basis. The report, Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity found that for every gallon of water used in an average household, five times more water (40,000 gallons each month) is used to provide that home with electricity via hydropower turbines and fossil fuel power plants.
The Burning Our Rivers report summarizes current research on the water consumption of all power production in the U.S., including the water consumption of both non-renewable and renewable energy sources. The water footprint of electricity is highest for hydropower: each day, enough water to meet the demands of more than 50 million people evaporates from reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams.
The report also highlights that electricity production by coal, nuclear and natural gas power plants is the fastest-growing use of freshwater in the U.S., accounting for more than about half of all fresh, surface water withdrawals from rivers. This is more than any other economic sector, including agriculture, and occurs in an era when all other use sectors are reducing water withdrawals. The report notes that experimental “clean coal” technologies are only expected to significantly increase water use.
More than a quarter of the water withdrawn by fossil-fuel power plants to cool their generators goes up in steam—the remainder carries pollutants and excess heat into rivers and waterways, causing fish kills and algae blooms.
“Fossil fuel power plants don’t just pollute the air,” noted River Network President Todd Ambs. “Cooling towers are also a very inefficient and environmentally detrimental use of our increasingly strained water resources.”
The report finds that wind and photovoltaic solar power have almost no water footprint at all, although other renewables such as biofuels from irrigated crops and solar thermal plants have water-use factors greater than some coal and nuclear power facilities.
“The days of taking water for granted in our decisions about energy production must come to an end,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director at the Alabama Rivers Alliance. "This report will help inform our state leaders about the key role energy plays in water management in Alabama."
The recommendations of the Burning Our Rivers report chart a new course that would include investments in water-efficient cooling technologies and “low-water” photovoltaic solar and wind power generation. Taken together and implemented across the country, these steps could reduce the amount of water used by the thermoelectric sector by 80 percent.
“We’re using a lot of water to keep the lights on and the TV running when we could be using it for drinking water, irrigation and to provide healthier rivers for fish,” notes Wendy Wilson, director of River Network’s Rivers, Energy & Climate Program and chief author of the report.
River Network is a River Network’s mission is to empower and unite people and communities to protect and restore rivers and other waters that sustain the health of our country. Founded in 1988, we are leading a national watershed protection movement that includes nearly 2,000 state, regional and local grassroots organizations whose primary purpose is freshwater protection. Our 17-person staff is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, with field staff in Vermont, Maryland, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah and Idaho.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.