Why Our Energy Choices Matter in a Warming, Water-Constrained World
By John Rogers
In a future of growing climate change impacts and water strains, the water implications of our electricity choices are way worth paying attention to. A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)-organized Energy and Water in a Warming World initiative (EW3) tells it like it is. Or like it will be. Or, actually, like it could be. Where we really head, it turns out, is all up to us.
Previous EW3 work, including our 2011 report, had looked at the electricity sector’s freshwater use now, and why it matters—for our lakes, rivers and other water resources, and for the reliability of the power plants themselves.
Like the previous report, Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World is the result of a collaboration among a talented set of independent researchers that explores cutting-edge questions about the intersection of energy, water and climate. This report looks ahead, though, and pieces together detailed pictures of the water futures we can shape through different power sector choices.
Where We Might Head, Energy-Wise
The starting point for this work is where we stand now: energy-water collisions are happening, climate change is real and present and the electricity sector is undergoing some big changes that make it clear that now’s a really important time to be making smart decisions, including with regard to water.
In our analysis, we then looked at a range of electricity futures, and what each could mean in terms of water use and water impacts — a sophisticated version of the “compare and contrast” from our school days, applied to some decidedly hefty issues: energy, water and climate change.
One of the electricity scenarios we examined was a business-as-usual pathway. Other scenarios took different approaches to addressing our power plants’ global warming problem quickly and head-on. Our modeling generated appreciably different electricity mixes for us to look into in a whole lot more depth.
What Our Energy Choices Could Mean, Water-Wise
The next part of our research looked at what each of those pathways might mean in terms of how much water power plants would use (withdraw and consume) over the next few decades. The high geographic resolution of the energy model we used meant we could look not just at national results, but also regional ones.
But it gets better. The water model we incorporated also allowed us to get down to a much more local level in particular important basins, to explore what might happen at scales that matter for particular rivers and particular places—the level at which we have seen particular incidents happening.
Of course, we don’t want to plan just for normal or average circumstances. To focus attention on troubled times, we also assumed dry periods—dry sequences of years from recent history—and rising air temperatures, consistent with global warming.
Why Our Electricity Pathway Matters
So what happens when you put all that together?
- Business as usual is not a path we want to be on—or have to be.
- Low-carbon pathways can be water-smart.
- But low-carbon power isn’t necessarily water-smart.
- Renewables and efficiency can be a winning combination.
Our lakes, rivers and aquifers are feeling pressure from a lot of quarters, and there are lots of ways we could be more water-smart in other areas—farms and cities, for example—to ease the pressure. Climate change by itself will also continue to be a serious factor in the next few decades.
The question is, from the perspective of the power sector, are we going to be making choices that make the situation better or worse? Cutting power plant water dependencies or sticking with approaches that have us racking up more energy-water collisions every summer for years to come?
Everybody Has a Role
As Yogi Berra might have said (and still could), “If you don’t watch where you’re going, you’ll end up where you’re headed.”
We can clearly make decisions now to cut our climate and water risk, and get us off business as usual. We’ve got loads of technologies now that mean we can design an electricity system that’s better, stronger, and, we found, cheaper.
Making that happen—getting us from business as usual to a much better path—will mean everybody making water-smart electricity decisions and engaging on these issues. Plant owners and investors. Legislators and regulators. Consumer groups and advocates. Researchers, scientists, and, even us engineers. We all have essential roles to play.
Our new report provides a solid foundation for thinking about the water implications of different electricity pathways.
Understanding and addressing the water impact of our electricity choices is urgent business. Because most power sector decisions are long-lived, what we do in the near-term commits us to risks or resilience for decades. We can untangle the production of electricity from the water supply, and we can build an electricity system that produces no carbon emissions. But we cannot wait, nor do either in isolation, without compromising both. For our climate—and for a secure supply of water and power—we must get this right.
Sounds like a plan we can’t live without.
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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.