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Water-Smart Choices Key to Reducing Energy Sector Vulnerabilities

Date Posted: 
July 19, 2013
Department of Energy/Union of Concerned Scientists

The historically high temperatures and climate extremes of recent years, including drought, heat waves, intense storms, and intense wildfires, foretell conditions the energy sector will need to adapt to in order to maintain energy production and distribution in the future. Two new reports, from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), examine the vulnerabilities of the U.S. energy sector and discuss ways to address these challenges. Vulnerabilities outlined by the DOE report include: increased risk of temporary shutdowns at coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants due to decreased water availability and higher temperatures, reduced power generation from hydroelectric power plants due to drought and declining snowpack, increased risk to coastal energy infrastructure from sea level rise and higher storm surge, increased risk of physical damage to electricity distribution systems from storms and wildfires, and increased blackouts and brownouts from increased demand for air-conditioner use in some regions. The report outlines potential adaptation responses and ways to improve resilience such as improving the efficiency and reducing the water intensity of certain types of power generation, improving data collection and analysis of the costs and benefits of adaptation and resilience measures, and increasing resilience of existing energy infrastructure.

The UCS report focuses on the energy-water interface, outlining vulnerabilities and promoting water-smart energy choices. The heat waves and drought in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012 led to power plant generator cut backs and shut downs due to lack of cooling water, and several power plants in the East and Midwest were given permission to discharge exceptionally hot water rather than reduce power output. These impacts will only worsen as temperatures continue to rise, according to the authors. To effectively reduce carbon emissions and pressure on water resources we must combine energy efficiency with renewable energy. They also suggest greater use of fuel and technology options already available to design a more water-efficient electricity system, making decisions that meet water-smart criteria, and engaging decision-makers across many different sectors.