Water and energy – a complex relationship in which each resource requires huge amounts of the other for efficient development and distribution.
Energy generation needs water for mining, drilling, cooling, steam turbines, and other processes. Water supplies need energy for pumping, treating, transporting, heating, cooling, and recycling. In the case of energy, there is plenty of potential supply from many different sources…at least on paper. The issue is, which source do you bet on when the predicted need is years away and every possible energy source comes with its own unique combination of economic, environmental, public health, national security, regulatory, political, and public acceptance risks?
But nowhere in the U.S. is the situation more critical and more obvious than in the West and Southwest. Reservoirs stand at historic lows and snowpacks are melting earlier and faster. Climate models predict a much drier future for the Southwest. Even if we disregard man-made climate change as a driver, historical evidence would predict longer, drier drought periods for the future. Evidence from tree rings and carbon dating indicates that the last 150 years or so may have been the wettest in the West and Southwest of the last two millennia. Droughts in the medieval period had lasted many decades. Normal climatic variation may be swinging us back to an environment where annual water supplies will be much lower than during than the baseline period on which we have built a large, complex social-agricultural-industrial infrastructure.
Planning for both our water and energy needs must take this possibility into account. Energy sources must make the most efficient use of water possible, including using lower quality water from saline aquifers or gray water. Nevertheless, those energy sources must be ample, clean, and reliable as more power is needed for pumping, treating, moving, and recycling water to squeeze the maximum out of every drop of our freshwater resources. Nuclear energy will be important in this regard since it represents a clean, reliable, 24-7 source of electricity to provide a clean, reliable, 24-7 source of freshwater. Decreasing water usage at generation facilities will mean higher electrical costs, as it will for all thermoelectric and biofuel sources of energy, ultimately increasing the price of water as well. But water has always been an undervalued and underpriced resource. The oncoming disparities in supply and demand may be about to change that. In the words of Ben Franklin, “When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.”