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Renewable Energy Vision
Expert analysis on the most pressing issues facing the renewable energy sector in the U.S and abroad from ACORE staff, members and supporters.

The Water Energy Nexus: The Benefits of Renewable Energy During A Drought

Published on 03 Nov 2014  |   Written by    |  

UPDATE: For a deeper dive into the issues surrounding water and renewable energy in the U.S., please view ACORE intern Sai Weiss's completed research paper on the subject from Fall, 2014. 

It’s not a stretch to say that clean water is fundamental for our society and economy. We use water for drinking, washing, growing crops, generating electricity, and most of all, for cooling thermoelectric power plants. In fact, 41% of water withdrawn nationally goes toward thermoelectric cooling. Moreover, in order to produce energy we need water, and in order to pressurize and transport water, we need energy. The reality is that water and energy are interdependent. With the energy sector having the biggest straw, one must wonder what happens when our water sources run dry.

The severe drought currently gripping the western U.S. offers a stark example of the relationship between water and energy. In California, clean hydropower energy accounted for 20% of its electricity generation from 2004 to 2013. However, thanks to a recent drought, hydropower production declined by 10% in 2014. That’s significant: according to ACORE’s 50 State Report, California derived 13% of its electricity from hydropower in 2013.

To make up for this loss of clean energy, California had to resort to burning more natural gas. Natural gas water use -- for fuel production and thermoelectric cooling -- is substantial. The conundrum that is created by burning more natural gas, instead of using renewable sources, is that we further consume our water resources that could have been used elsewhere. In this case, it could have been appropriated for use in agriculture. More importantly, should California continue the trend of substituting hydro for natural gas for energy production during drought seasons?

With smart energy planning that could be unlikely. Wind and solar energy picked up the slack in California’s energy mix. For the first time, wind energy generation surpassed hydro energy generation during the months of March and February 2014. That’s good news: unlike natural gas, wind and PV solar do not use water for power production. By increasing sources of energy from wind and PV solar to the grid, California can alleviate the ancillary costs associated with power production during a time of drought.

With persistent climate change and an ever-growing population, the frequency of water shortages will be inevitable. If we can ensure that the energy we produce will not exhaust our local resources, we can reduce the risk of a price shock or water shortage that would pose a grave threat to our economy.

By investing in renewable energy, we are making an investment towards our national security, financial stability and environmental integrity. Renewables can provide a cost-effective source of energy that will have ripple effects through every sector of our economy, while conserving water at the same time.

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